Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Lenten Meditation from Merold Westphal

“If Christianity is Platonism for the masses, scientific objectivity is Platonism for the enlightened elites of modernity.”
Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith. (New York: Fordham UP, 1998) p. 227

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Hope And The Future: An Open Letter To The President

Dear President Obama,

I know you've got a lot on your mind right now, and I don't envy you the burdens of your office.  I pray for you often, asking God to give you the wisdom to make good decisions and the strength to carry them out.

I have two requests for you today.  The first is, please don't give up on hope.  In your first campaign you spoke about hope a lot, and I think you know that meant a lot to people everywhere.  We all want hope, especially hope that we feel we can believe in.  We will often settle for unreasonable hopes, but we prefer hopes that seem grounded in possibility rather than in wild fantasy. For a while there you sounded like you had both hope and reason for hope.  When I think about the office you occupy, I imagine there's a lot that works to rein hope in, to tame hope and to break it.  You start out with big ideals, and then everyone reminds you that limited resources will be made to seem even scarcer by partisan quarrels until there's nothing left to spend on dreams.  But let me tell you this: we need you to make lots of small decisions, but we also need some big dreams, some reasonable hopes.  We need someone who will climb the steps to the bully pulpit and preach a sermon that reminds us of "the better angels of our nature." Don't just make the little decisions; remind us of the great hopes that have lived in our nation.

The second request is related to the first: I'd like you to help us to nurture the reasonable hope that we can find new ways of making energy.  There are powerful sermons being preached about building more oil and tar sand pipelines so that the old ways can be maintained.  But those are sermons without hope, the sermons of a creed doomed to perish in fire and smoke of its own burning, the platitudes born of a faith in a limited and dwindling resource.  They are the cynical homilies of those who pass the collection plate and who think the worst thing they can lose is our regular tithing to the god of petroleum.

We need a reformation in that way of thinking.

Because national security is not just about defending ourselves with bullets and bombs, and it's not just about making sure we have enough oil.  In the long run, national security has to mean that we have taken good care of the land, so that it is still worth inhabiting.  That, in turn, means we have nurtured our hearts and minds and cultivated our virtue.  What, after all, does it profit a nation to gain the world and lose its soul?  We are a nation of innovators, not just custodians of the status quo.  We began as an experiment, and it is in experimentation and new thinking that our hope now lies.

We can begin by directing more funding to universities.  We need bright engineers who have the freedom and funds to investigate how to make more efficient solar and wind energy. 

We also need bright students in the humanities who will help us form the best policies to make sure we use our technology well.  After all, a democracy can live without engineers, but it cannot survive long without reporters, teachers, and lawyers.

We know that money spent on education pays a perpetual dividend to both the person educated and her whole community.  

We can also encourage the creation of new and important prizes.  Why should we not have more prizes like the Nobel Prizes?  And why shouldn't such a proud and wealthy nation fund some of those prizes?  You've got the ear of the world for a little while longer.  Use that opportunity well, and urge us to put our private funds into prizes for people who advance the causes that matter most to humanity: growing good food, creating and preserving clean water, protecting the species God told us to care for, healing the sick, liberating captives, and making us better producers and consumers of energy.

I am grateful for people who willingly take on the burdens of public office.  I don't imagine it is easy.  You remain in my prayers.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Hit The Road, Philosophy"

My latest article, written with John Kaag, at Times Higher EducationHere's a sample:
"If philosophy is, as the name suggests, about loving wisdom, then it shouldn’t be something that is practised by only an erudite few. The argument that wisdom is valuable for everyone, and the life spent pursuing it is itself a good life is not some sort of Pollyanna idealism, but a pragmatic hope that philosophical reflection (what academic and novelist David Foster Wallace simply called “choosing what to think about”) can and does give life meaning."
You can read it all here.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Minnesota Canvas

I just returned from teaching a monthlong tropical ecology class in Belize and Guatemala.  As I flew from Minneapolis to Sioux Falls, I saw this view of the farms below.  Farmers and engineers have made firm lines according to the compass points, dividing the land into neat checkerboard squares of farmland bordered by dirt roads.  Every section has its woodlot, a dark quadrilateral on a white snowdrifted landscape.  

Ignoring the lines laid down by us, the wind has painted over this right-angled landscape.  The snow and the soil show where the wind has steadily brushed across the state, patiently unmaking what we have done. 

The Place Where I Live - In Orion Magazine

Here is a short piece I wrote for Orion Magazine, along with a few of my photos from around Sioux Falls.  It will appear in the print edition later this year.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Music of the Spheres: The Sun Is A Morning Star

Students in my Ancient and Medieval Philosophy class are required to spend at least four hours outdoors, gazing at the skies.   
The Morning Star, Good Earth State Park (SD), December 2013

That may sound odd, but it arises from my conviction that philosophy needs labs.  I call it my "Music of the Spheres" project, in which I invite them to consider what it would have been like to be Thales (who was one of the first to predict a solar eclipse), gazing at the night sky and thinking about the laws that seem to guide the motions of the celestial bodies. 

The students are given specific instructions and they must come up with a clear research project that can be accomplished using only the tools available to ancient astronomers. 

For me, the best part of the class comes at the end when I read their work, and I get to see their offhand comments, like this: 
"I saw the Milky Way and its Great Rift for the first time."
My heart leapt when I read that one.  This next one didn't make my heart leap, but it did make my heart glad, because it too is an important discovery:
"Stargazing is much more fun with a friend."
We live beneath these skies but so rarely do we lie on our backs beneath them and gaze upwards.  Rarely do we lift our eyes to the heavens to see what is there, and when we do, we are quick to turn away in boredom, as though it were a small thing to gaze into the greatest distances.

If you don't know what planets are visible right now; if you can't quickly identify a few constellations; or if you aren't sure what phase the moon is in, why not go outside and have a look?  And why not share the moment with a friend?

The heavens are not yet done revealing themselves to us, and "the sun is but a morning star."