Monday, December 31, 2012

Shakespeare's Sonnets, And Rieden's "Sonnet Number Six"

Back in the late '90s my classmate Charles Rieden complained to our Dean at St John's College that he didn't want to have to read Shakespeare's sonnets.  Charles explained to the Dean that sonnets were an outmoded and rather silly form of writing.  

The Dean listened to all this patiently, and then made Charles an offer: write me one good sonnet and you don't have to read any of Shakespeare's sonnets.  Charles immediately agreed.  How hard could it be to write one decent sonnet?

Very hard, it turns out.  And Charles, to his everlasting credit, came to see that pretty quickly.  He produced some sonnets that week, but, by his own estimation, they were terrible.  So he kept trying.  Eventually, over the course of the next year, he had a thick stack of sonnets.  I think in the end he wound up writing more sonnets than Shakespeare, and quite a few of them were really good.

Charles died, tragically, later that year.  He was hit by a drunk driver as he walked along a highway in Santa Fe.  The college framed one of his best sonnets, "Sonnet Number Six," and hung it in the graduate student common room.

As near as I know, it still hangs there, a memorial to Charles.  I take it as a reminder not to dismiss too quickly what I do not understand, and not to imagine I understand what I have not really engaged with.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Great Books, Pedagogy, and Hope

Great Books and the Great Conversation
About fifteen years ago I enrolled in the "Great Books" M.A. program at St John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  It was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Much as I appreciate my undergraduate education, too often it rewarded me for concealing my ignorance and emphasizing what I already knew.  The problem, of course, is that my ignorance was thus shielded from the sterilizing sunlight of others' scrutiny and instruction.

Confessing Our Ignorance
Matthew Davis, my tutor and advisor at St John's, won me over to another way of viewing literature when, on one of the first days we met, he pointed to a passage in Plato's Republic and said "I have always wondered what Plato means by that."  Looking up at the class, he asked, "Do any of you have any ideas about what he might be trying to say?"

Mr. Davis is the first professor I recall who openly confessed his ignorance, and who thereby modeled what it means to open oneself to the instruction of a great text.  Not much has shaped my academic life as much as that.

Grappling With Classic Texts
As I have begun to mature into my own place as a teacher, I often think that this is the best thing I can give my students: not professorial and authoritative descriptions of texts, but an example of what it means to be a student.  I can try to be an example of someone who sits with texts and listens to them, grappling with them, like Jacob with the angel or like Menelaus with Proteus: persistently grappling with my superior and refusing to let go until I receive a blessing.  (Selah.)

For the last few years I have been seeking out and reading classic novels.  As I read them I feel like an apprentice architect touring buildings, looking not just at the outward form and function but looking for the supporting structure, trying to notice the decisions the artist made about what to include and what to omit.
Along the way, I have begun trying to write bits of dialogue, scenes, characters, and other elements of fiction.  I'm not trying to write a novel so much as trying to perform experiments the way high school science students do in labs: not to discover something new but to learn haptically, kinesthetically, experientially what the masters already know. I can't say that I've learned to write novels, so don't expect anything from me there.  But as I've paid attention, I feel I've begun to squeeze some blessings out of the books, including some unexpected ones.

I've noticed, for instance, that Craig Nova writes about the olfactory sense in a way that makes me notice aromas I never noticed before.  John Steinbeck has begun to make me care more about friendship, and about the people in front of me.  Harold Frederic has me rethinking my early faith, and this is helping me look ahead as I try to nurture it into a faith worth having.  Novels are helping me see the world differently.

So What Does This Have To Do With Hope?
I just finished Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul. Apparently this was Greene's favorite of his own works, and I can see why.  Like many of the really good novels I've read, it has left me thinking about a range of topics, and longing for someone to talk about it with.

Which brings me to hope.  I started reading Greene because Bill Swart, my friend and colleague, told me about how good Greene's novels are.  Bill was right about this, so I sought him out the other day to talk more about Greene.  We said too much to cover it all here, but Bill said something I can't bear not to repeat.  When we began discussing Greene's The Power and the Glory, Bill said "That book gave me hope that my own self-perception might be wrong."

If you know the novel, you know why, because you know how Greene's characters wrestle with being both sinners and saints.  If you don't know the novel, let me recommend it to you.

We Should Keep Teaching And Reading Fiction
I still have a lot to learn about novels.  I doubt I'll ever write one - or a good one, anyway.  But I'm delighting in reading them.  Perhaps that's why they matter so much: they delight us, and capture us.  When I'm in a good book I feel like I'm really in it.  I stop seeing words on a page and start seeing, with some inner eye, the world the novelist sees. 

And like all my other travels, journeys into fiction leave me a different person.  I see different possibilities, I see -- and smell -- my world differently.  I know it's important to teach young people to read non-fiction, but teaching fiction might be for them what The Power and the Glory was for Bill: a tonic for his soul, a sweet drink of hope that didn't just entertain, but that allowed him to envision his life, his work, and his purpose in an entirely new way.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Idolatry of Fear

Let me start with some rough definitions: by worship I mean ascribing worth to something, to the point of making it a guide for one's actions.  By an idol I mean something that does not merit the worship it is given.

Now: when fear becomes the guide for our actions, we should ask whether that fear deserves to be at the center of our attention.

Because what resides at the center of our attention starts to shape us.  I don't mean it remakes us completely.  I mean that what we mentally caress and cherish will affect our ethical decisions.  The inward life has outward consequences.

Some fear is prudent.  It is prudent not to stand on mountain ridges or under trees during thunderstorms.  But if we live in constant fear of lightning, something has gone wrong.  Either we live in the wrong place, or lightning has taken too central a role in our minds.  Lightning becomes a monster, a demigod, a perpetual danger that stunts our growth and keeps our heads down.

The same could be said when we fear our neighbors: either we live in the wrong place, or we give too much credence to potential dangers and crowd out from our consciousness the potential joys of human fellowship.  So our neighbors become monsters and we become their victims, and we worship them as fearful gods whom we come to despise.

What is the antidote to the idolatry of fear?  Someone once said "perfect love drives out all fear."  If I can conceive of my neighbor not as a monster but as someone worth loving--even to a small degree--then I have begun to let love -- philia, agape* -- dwell at the center of my consciousness.  And I can begin to lift my head, just a little.

* Philia can mean "love," or "friendship."  The latter books of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics give a thoughtful treatment of philia.  Among his insights there, Aristotle says that where there is philia, there is no need for laws.  Like philia, the word agape can be translated as "love."  Charles Peirce used this word to describe the kind of love that seeks the good of the beloved (you can see more here and also in the Gospel of John) and distinguishes this from eros, the love that seeks the good of the lover.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Last Time I Saw Mingus

The Last Time I Saw Mingus

The last time I saw Mingus
He stood in his driveway, across from ours
Talking with my mother.
His dark dashiki
Made him look like a great bearded priest,
Heavy with years, and music.
They spoke quietly of the weather, and of maintaining their homes,
But not of their children, though looking back
I can see that they were really speaking about us.
He laid a gentle hand on my nine-year-old shoulder,
In neighborly welcome.
And Mom saw it as a blessing.
Her eyes were still bright with hope in those days,
Even though dark times had come for them both.

David O’Hara
A friend asked me about this poem, one I dreamed entire and repeatedly throughout the night, and then scrawled onto paper as soon as I awoke. I posted it here for him. I'm never sure what to make of such things that come to us in the night. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Poem As I Approach Gaudete Sunday


Consider the angels.

Because maybe the broken men get too much attention.
Drunk with power and impotent with the kind of blind rage
That will carelessly hurl their countrymen down to the grave,
They try, in fiery futility, to salve some inner wound
By wasting the lives of others in blind fury and then,
(Perhaps in a final moment of penitent clarity,
or in obedience to the last demonic urge)
Waste themselves,
As mothers wail.

This monotone litany of nightmares,
It’s a constant, manicured, damnable drone.  The same words
We have heard again and again.  I am no wise man,
I can find no meaning in them.
Cameras frame parents hunched over, clutching each other
Like living icons of passion and grief, offered so that we might worship.
And I’m ashamed at how hard it is not to continue to stare
At this flickering, televised altar of perfect priests and the grief they sell.

What I need now doesn’t come from gazing at monsters.
But from giving thanks for the angels:

For brave souls in badges and brims,
Who run towards the fire, not away,
Who guide the children to safety,
Who help legs paralyzed with fear find their feet and find their home again;

For dumbstruck neighbors who stop everything,
And cry together so no one has to cry alone;

For men and women and children on the other side of the world,
Who do not know us but mourn with us anyway,
Knowing that we are family;

For people who see the darkness of despair descending,
And resolve to be light today, and keep that resolution tomorrow.

And for the teachers.  The teachers
Who will somehow find a way to make their feet walk back into their schools;
Who have seen the monsters, and know they are real, and yet,
Who refuse to worship their fear.
They know it is better
To kneel on the floor, and read, and play,
Remembering for all of us,
With good will and with daily acts of intercession,
That nothing must be allowed to stop
The sacred work
Of children.

Photo by David O'Hara


David L. O’Hara


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Charles Peirce on Criminal Justice

I have posted briefly about Peirce's interest in criminal justice before.  I haven't time to comment on it extensively now, so for now I will post this link to his piece entitled "Dmesis"* and these brief comments:

More than once commentators on Peirce's Pragmatism have argued that he does not pay attention to politics or to political, social, and ethical theory.  This piece is not alone in refuting that thesis.  It would be more accurate to say that for Peirce, it is impossible to treat social and ethical issues apart from the rest of his philosophy.  Peirce was a synechist, which means he held that ideas are not independent atoms of thought but interdependent and interconnected with one another.  Ideas affect one another.

One great implication of this is that just as one idea affects another in our private thinking, so our personal beliefs affect other persons.  Our ideas are not atoms, and neither are we.  The foundation of ethics, and of all philosophy, is agape, or love.  As Peirce wrote elsewhere,  

“He who would not sacrifice his own soul to save the whole world, is illogical in all his inferences, collectively.”

Peirce makes the especially trenchant observation that if we really cared about criminals, then our criminal justice system would make positive habituation a guiding principle in the housing and treatment of prisoners.  I'm willing to concede that Peirce may not be right in all he says here, but this point seems spot on: it is inconsistent to habituate people to prison life if our aim is to return them to society.

Peirce's conclusion in the third paragraph also seems right: the fact is, we imprison people "because we detest them."

*  ("Dmesis" is a Greek word that means "taming," or "breaking.")

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Prayer and Forgiveness

Years ago I was wronged by someone I worked with.  The details don't matter, because as Viktor Frankl says, pain is like a gas, expanding to fill the available space.  Even if it was a small offense, it swelled until it filled me.

I told a friend about it, who listened patiently to my story.  When I was done, he said, sympathetically, "You need to pray for him and ask God to bless him."

What I had hoped to hear was something more like "Wow, what a waste of skin that guy is.  Your anger is justified."

Now that I have the increasing clarity that comes when time separates us from painful events, I think my friend was right.  His idea of God is that God wants all of us to be better than we are.

Praying for my former co-worker has allowed me to remove him from the center of my consciousness, where his image lived as a threatening villain, and to think of him as someone in need of healing and transformation.  Blessing him has given me a way to articulate my desire to see him change and become a kinder person, for everyone's sake.

No doubt theology matters here.  In plainer terms, how we imagine the God we pray to matters, because that will shape the way we act towards others.  At the risk of declaring the obvious: what we think about God has consequences for the way we live with other people.  In her book, Lit, Mary Karr talks about a friend who tells her that God doesn't have a plan for her, God has a dream for her.  God wants good things for her.

That's an attractive idea of God, one who wants us to forgive others so we can be set free from their tyranny; and one who wants us to bless others so that we can begin to see ourselves as agents of positive change rather than as victims.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Course Of Nature and Laws of Nature

As part of the sabbatical leave I am currently enjoying I am spending a lot of time reading ancient and medieval texts, mostly on science and mathematics.  The plan is to incorporate them into my ancient and medieval philosophy class next fall.  I teach that class more as a history of texts than as a class on philosophical problems.  The historical development of astronomy is one of the main threads we follow, tying it to discoveries in geometry, optics, metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, and politics.

Today I was reading this text from Book I of Manilius' AstronomicaI'll translate the relevant part below.
Nam neque fortuitos ortus surgentibus astris
nec totiens possum nascentem credere mundum
solisve assiduous partus et fata diurna,
cum facies eadem signis per saecula constet,
idem Phoebus eat caeli de partibus isdem
lunaque per totidem luces mutetur et orbes
et natura vias servet, quas fecerat ipsa,
nec tirocinio peccet, circumque feratur
aeterna cum luce dies, qui tempora monstrat
nunc his nunc illis eadem regionibus orbis,
semper et ulterior vadentibus ortus ad ortum
occasumve obitus, caelum et cum sole perennet.
The boldface text could be (loosely) translated like this: "Nature follows paths that she herself has made, and she does not stray as the inexperienced do." 

On the one hand, this sounds like an early articulation of the idea of laws of nature.  If nature follows paths laid down by nature itself and from which it does not deviate, that would be compatible with our idea of a natural law.

Yet there's an important difference between law and path. As you walk along a path, your feet may fall more to one side of the path or the other; and over time, paths may shift, broadening with use or narrowing with desuetude. Charles Peirce, responding to advocates of Hume's argument against miracles, argues that nature is like this as well, and that what we now call laws were once called  the course of nature, and Peirce thinks of them as habits that nature has taken on.

The name makes a difference, if only a slight one. Peirce was not trying to argue for particular miracles, but he was urging students of science not to insist that nature behave according to their preconceptions of law.  Manilius' idea is not so far-fetched: the laws might not have been there at all, but nature took them on and then, once they became habits, nature has stuck to them. Thinking about science this way alerts us to two possibilities: first, that things might not always have been as they are, and second, that nature might still be taking on new habits.  We shouldn't expect nature to stray far from its habitual paths, but on the other hand, what would prevent it from doing so?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Charles Peirce's Version Of The "Lord's Prayer"

Charles Peirce's writings frequently touch on religious topics.  As Douglas Anderson, Michael Raposa, Hermann Deuser and others (myself included) have argued this is not accidental but integral to his philosophy.

Throughout his life he wrote on prayer, usually tersely, though occasionally he wrote at length, as when he proposed some changes to the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer based on his semeiotic theory.

Here is one piece from his journal, written while he was a student at Harvard in 1859.  It appears to be a re-writing of the Lord's Prayer:

"I pray thee, O Father, to help me regard my innate ideas as objectively valid.  I would like to live as purely in accordance with thy laws as inert matter does with nature's.  May I, at last, have no thoughts but thine, no wishes but thine, no will but thine.  Grant me, O God, health, valor, and strength.  Forgive the misuse, pray of thy former good gifts, as I do the ingratitude of my friends.  Pity my weakness and deliver me, O Lord; deliver me and support me."

(This is from MS 891, “Private Thoughts,” number XLVI.  Peirce's writings include his vast unpublished writings, mostly held at Harvard, with copies at IUPUI and Texas Tech)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Look Up!

Just saw this over at Slate and had to post it here. It's a beautiful animation of a full year of the phases of the moon, done by NASA.

If you like that, you might also like something I wrote about looking at the moon a year ago.

Guarda la luna, la bella luna!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Social Media As Lessons In Writing

I sometimes suspect that when my colleagues find out that I am on Twitter (@davoh) they decide to take me just a little less seriously.  They don't need to say it out loud; the slight rise of the eyebrows, the gentle curving of the upper lip say it all.  You're not serious, right?  Aren't you an academic? The implication is that if you can tweet it it's not serious.  Facebook and some blogs are only a little better. 

As it turns out, Twitter is pretty useful for academics.  It's helpful a way of staying in touch with new things in my field.  People use Twitter to share new discoveries and announcements about grants and conferences.  By following others in my field and engaging them in conversation, I've made a few friends

But Twitter is also a good tool for learning to write.  When I teach writing, I urge my students to use short words and short sentences.  This seems to fly in the face of what they learn in high school, where they're taught to use ten-cent words when a one-cent word will do.

As odd as it may sound, I use Twitter and Facebook as a means of training myself to say things that matter to me in short form.  James K.A. Smith says something similar in the sidebar to his Fors Clavigera blog; like me, he uses his blog to practice writing quickly and without much editing. 

Twitter rewards brevity.  If you can't say it quickly, you can't tweet it.  And if you can't say it well, it will go unread.  I can't say my tweets are great writing yet, but like any habit, the only way I can imagine changing my writing is by practice.

Is It Time For A New Transcendentalism?

For the last few weeks I have found myself returning to this question: Is it time for a new Transcendentalism?

I normally try to write simple blog posts, but this one might get a little technical.  I'll try to minimize the jargon (and so, no doubt, will do some injustice to the technical stuff) but feel free to skip the following section if you like. 

The Seeds Of Transcendentalism 

When we teach Transcendentalism, we emphasize a few key texts by figures like Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Carlyle, Coleridge, Hedge, and others of their acquaintance.  Attention to nature, and terms like "self-reliance" and "civil disobedience" shape our understanding of the movement, though they are more like the fruit of the movement than its seeds. 

One of the most important seeds of Transcendentalism is the refusal to let one's self be owned, defined, or constrained by others.  Today, "self-reliance" sounds like a description of someone who owns a generator in case the power goes out, or who learns engine repair so she doesn't need to depend on a mechanic.  But closer to the heart of Transcendentalism is suspicion of others' descriptions of the self and the world.

Inspired in part by Kant's phenomenology and in part by German and English Romanticism, Emerson charted a course between the stifling atmosphere of inherited religion and the determinism of mechanistic philosophies.  Unable to find a reliable source of knowledge in the experienced world (our perceptions are always a little off, and maybe they're completely mistaken, as when we hallucinate) Kant located another source of knowledge in our innate ability to know the world at all.  Kant argued that we have innate structures of knowledge, intuitive forms that transcend all experience and so are not subject to the doubt directed at experience.  Emerson Platonized Kant's epistemology, taking Kant to mean that our inward reflections not only form the world, but give us direct access to the meaning of the world.  The individual knower knows some things without being taught them by anyone else. 

To put that in other terms, Emerson's Transcendentalism emphasized an "original relation to the universe," in which we trust our intuitions and exercise distrust towards beliefs that have come from outside us.  This calls for "prospective," not retrospective, thinking, meaning a willingness to look forward to new possibilities rather than looking backwards to the rules and traditions of our ancestors to acquire rules for our lives. 

In even simpler terms, when we let churches and other institutions (scientific, economic, cultural, etc) limit our self-understanding, we also allow them to constrain the scope of our possibilities. 

A New Transcendentalism 

It may seem we no longer need Transcendentalism because churches are losing their authority and many of us feel free to think what we wish.  I am skeptical of this latter claim.  Peirce argues that we do not seek the truth; we seek relief from the irritation of doubt.  We look for beliefs that are comfortable, and the most comfortable beliefs are the ones that mesh well with the beliefs of others around us.  C.S. Lewis, in his preface to Athanasius' De Incarnatione, argues that we should read old books because that is one of the surest ways to have our current beliefs challenged.  He adds that simply reading broadly in modern books will not do because people who live in any given age tend to share most of their beliefs. Training in history, and especially in the history of ideas, exposes our beliefs to a broader community that can cast doubt on what we believe.

Another way of saying this is that we agree with ideas that bear the imprimatur of our community.  One idea that has growing acceptance is the idea that to be human is to be describable.  I admit I am fascinated by this idea, and I delight in learning about the molecules that make our bodies, and the ways they interact.

But I find myself resisting this description of life.  Not because it seems wrong, but only because it seems incomplete.  It is tempting to turn a good description into a complete one, to be satisfied with a partial description precisely because there is no pressure not to accept it.  

Isn't this one of the things we mock in earlier ages, though?  I mean their unblinking acceptance of what everyone else around them believed.  Are we so free of that same tendency in our own age?  

Doubt As A Gardener

Let me add at this point that I find myself thinking about this in my quietest times of reflection, which makes me think it's not coming to me as a polemic against something so much as an apology for something.  I don't want to argue against science, because I think science is one of the finest things we've ever come up with.  What I want is something that will nevertheless act as a loyal opposition to science, a court jester, perhaps, who will listen patiently to court business about the latest discoveries, but then impudently ask "Yes, but why do you care?"  Or say "That's really beautiful, isn't it?  Now - tell me about beauty in a way that doesn't leave anything out."

It won't be easy.  Transcendentalists and jesters aren't often taken seriously, but their work is perhaps the most serious and important type of work.  What I am calling for is like what Cornel West calls prophecy, a missional work of justice, a forward-looking, love-driven endeavor that doesn't want to see anyone taken prisoner by a merely adequate account of what it means to be human.  I don't have a full vision of what this means; I'm writing about it here as a first step of externalizing a hunch that it's time to reclaim something of Emerson's vision and to plant the seeds of some doubt.  

Doubt is not the enemy of faith and knowledge; it is the gardener who prunes the plant so that it may flourish.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

If I had another daughter

I think I would like to name her Malala.

Watching Out For One Another

Something that has struck me lately, a new way (for me, at least) to think of some ancient religious texts:
"You are to do the same [sacrifices] for anyone who sins unintentionally or through ignorance..." 
"Early in the morning, he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, "Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts."
These texts look only one step removed from magic and superstition, where a fear of evil consequences makes us undergo purifying rituals.

But maybe the one step they have taken away from superstition is this: they both speak of taking care of others. 

We may err intentionally, and that is our fault.  But we all err ignorantly and unintentionally as well.  We offend without meaning to offend.  We do harm without knowing the consequences of our actions.

It is good to be reminded of these things, if only so that we don't think of ourselves too highly.  The sacrifice is at least a reminder that we are not flawless, and that we should still examine our lives.  Even what we intend for good may cause harm.

If we know that about ourselves, we may know it about others as well.  And knowing it about others, we may have the same compassion for them as we have for ourselves.


*The first passage is from the Book of Ezekiel, 45.20; the second is from the Book of Job, 1.5.  Both are from the New International Version, which happened to be the one nearest to hand as I wrote this.  The first passage is from a passage instructing priests; the second is from the ancient poem about Job, the good man who suffers unexplained evil.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reluctant Prayer

I do not like to pray, but I think prayer is important.

Of course, "prayer" can mean many different things, and I do not mean all of them.  But - despite my disliking for the activity of prayer - I practice several kinds of prayer.

Petition and Intercession
I spend most of my prayer time asking for things.  This probably sounds foolish on more than one level.  Here's the thing: I use the language of asking because it's what comes most naturally. I'm not an expert at this.  But this asking is, for me, like stretching my muscles before a run.  If I stretch well, I can run further and faster, and I do more good than harm.  Stretching prepares me to do more than I could have done otherwise.  It expels stiffness and inertia and inaction.

Asking God to do good in the lives of others could be a cop-out, where we dump our problems on the divine and then proceed to ignore them.  What I try to practice is a kind of asking where I'm not giving up on being part of the solution.  Frankly, I think a lot of the big problems in the world will take more than just me, so I have no shame about asking God to do some of the heavy lifting.  But it's also important that I take some time out of my day to practice being less concerned with my own worries and more concerned with others.  This is not the run; it is the warmup, the stretching.  The stretching does some good all on its own, but it also prepares me to do other good.

One part of this I have a hard time sorting out is whether and how to tell people I am praying for them.  Some people are grateful for it, others are bothered by it.  I understand both of those reactions.  There are times when we feel the weight of grief less heavily when we know others care enough to devote part of their day to the contemplation of our suffering.  And there are times when it seems like people tell us about their prayers so that we will think more highly of them.  I have yet to figure this all out.  I'll just say it now: if you tell me of your sorrows, I will do my best to remember those sorrows in my quiet time, and I will bring them, in silent contemplation, into the presence of my contemplation of the divine. 

Make Me A Blessing
My main prayer each day is one I learned from actor Richard Gere.  Years ago, after he became a Buddhist, he said in an interview that when he meets someone he says to himself, silently, "Let me be a blessing to this person."  This has stayed with me, and it seems like a good prayer.  (He might not call it a prayer, which is fine with me.)  I begin my day with that prayer, in the abstract, something like this: "Let me be a blessing to everyone I encounter, to everyone affected by my life.  Let me be a blessing, and not a curse.  Let me not bring shame on anyone, and keep me from doing or saying what is foolish or harmful."  This is not unlike the well-known prayer of St Francis, whose story I have loved since Professor Pardon Tillinghast first made me study it in college years ago.

We Become Like What We Worship
What lies behind all this is my hunch - and I admit it's just a hunch - that we come to resemble the things that matter most to us, the things that we treasure and mentally caress in our inmost parts.  And I think this happens subtly and slowly, the way habits build up, or the way our bodies slowly change over time, one cell division at a time.  The little things add up to the big thing; our small gestures become the great sweep of our lives.

So in prayer I'm trying to take time out of each day to at least expose myself once again to the things I think are most worth imitating: love of neighbor, love of justice, peacemaking, contentment, hospitality, generosity, gentleness, defense of the downtrodden, healing, joy, patience, self-control.  So much of the rest of my day I wind up chasing after things that take up an amount of time that is disproportionate to their value.

If prayer does nothing else than force me to remember what I claim is important--even if this means exposing myself to myself as a hypocrite--then it has already done me some good.  And I hope this will mean I'm less of a jerk to everyone else, too.  When I'm honest with myself (and let's be honest, that's not as often as it should be) this leads me to what churches have long called confession and repentance, the acknowledgement that I'm not all I claim to be, that I'm not yet all I could be, that I have let myself and others down, and that needs to change.  Perhaps this comes from my long interest in Socrates: I think it's probably healthy to make it a habit to consider one's own life.

Musement and Contemplation
There is another kind of prayer that I find quite difficult most of the time, but sometimes I fall into it, and when I do, it is always a delight.  It happens sometimes when I am walking, or in the shower, or while reading something that utterly disrupts my usual patterns of thinking.  It happens sometimes while I lie awake at night.  Charles Peirce talks about this as "musement," a kind of disinterested contemplation of all our possible and actual experiences.

Emerson called prayer the consideration of the facts of the universe from the highest possible point of view.  I'm not sure I get anything like the highest possible point of view when I pray, but contemplative prayer does feel like an attempt to at least consider what such a point of view would be like.

Perhaps the best part of this Peircean/Emersonian kind of prayer is the opportunity for rest.  Oddly, Peirce says that this is not a relaxation of one's mental powers but the vigorous use of one's powers.  The difference between this and hard work is that musement doesn't try to accomplish anything.  Peirce says that we could call this "Pure Play."  Play may be physically tiring but it is mentally and spiritually refreshing, and it often shows us things we would not otherwise have seen.  At least, this is my experience in the outdoors - I climb mountains and wade in rivers and snorkel in the ocean in order to experience the moment when what is possible becomes actual, when what I have not yet seen becomes a fact in my existence.  The novelty of it makes life delicious.

Why I Pray
This is a good deal of what drives me to pray, anyway: I want to love my neighbor and my world more than I actually do, so I spend time preparing to do so; I want to become more like the best things and the best people I know, so I spend time dwelling on them, in the belief that worship shapes my character; and I know it is good for me to have my patterns of thought disrupted, so I try to allow myself to enter into a playful contemplation of the world and all that it symbolizes.  None of this is easy.  It is like any other exercise, sometimes rewarding, often difficult, and nearly always a preparation for the unexpected.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Home and Hospitality

A friend asked me today to explain what I mean by "home" in a sentence or two.  This is too tall an order for someone as wordy as me.  I think of Du Bellay's "Heureux qui, comme Ulysse," of what Hebrews 11 says about Abraham, who looked forward to leaving his tents for a city with foundations; I think of the mountains of my youth, and my homesickness for their colors, and sounds, and seasonal smells.  I think of Odysseus, and his long road home, home to where others patiently waited for his return.  It matters that we find our way home, and the whole earth does not count as our home.  We incarcerate people in places that are not home-ly; we fight to live in our particular home when we are invaded, even though our species can live almost anywhere.  Home matters.

Perhaps home means this: the place where we feel free to show, or to receive hospitality.  The measure of our willingness to be hospitable to others, or of our ability to receive hospitality in new places, is the measure of our homes.  They are not measured in square feet, but in welcome.  What do you think?  That feels like a good first try, but perhaps you can say something better, or truer than that.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Future Hopes, Present Experience, and the Wisdom of the Past

A reflection on Henry Bugbee's Inward Morning, his entry dated Friday, September 5.

Bugbee writes: "Of experience...we may hope for understanding in our own time, and in this we do not seem to have the edge on preceding generations of men."

Science grows from one generation to another.  What we know is more advanced than what previous generations knew.  But precisely because of this, we are alienated from what science will know, what it aims to know when it reaches its goal.  Science uses experience, it swims in the medium of experience on a long-distance swim.  We are like generations of migratory butterflies, none of us making the whole journey, but each of us making part of it so that the next generation may fly further.  Standing on one another's shoulders we become the giants upon whose shoulders our intellectual descendants may stand.

At first blush, experience seems less worth knowing, since it is subjective, unquantifiable, subject to the winds of time and the diurnal tides of the chemistry of our blood.  But experience is immediate.  No generation is privileged; every generation receives the same share.  Here our knowledge is not a deposit that we hope will gain interest for our children; it is something in our hands and for us now.  The wisdom of the past does not advance the next generation so much as clarify our own.

Bugbee again: "It is not a question of our beginning from where they leave off and going on to supersede them. We are fortunate if we can become communicant in our own way with what they have to say." 

Tradition has roots that mean handed-down.  Bugbee reminds me, gives me words to articulate, why it is worth continuing to try to read ancient wisdom.  He reminds me why, when I could have chosen to work in science, it is not a bad choice to work as a teacher, priest, curator, historian, poet, librarian - a custodian of the narratives of experience.  Science aims forward beyond our lives; but experience is here now, where we live.  Is it such a bad thing to live here and now?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Sorcery and Pollution

In the Apocalypse of St John on Patmos, he writes that some will be excluded from heaven by their wickednesses. [1]  He describes them with florid metaphor, calling them "the dogs," for example.  He goes on to name some of them: sorcerers, fornicators, murderers, idolaters, and so on.  A nasty lot, to be sure, all of them worshiping things not worthy of worship.

Of course, sorcery isn't much of a problem for us these days.  At least, that's how most of us see it. But some folks are concerned that magic in modern fiction poses a threat to sanctity.  Several years ago I wrote a book called From Homer To Harry Potter, in which one of my aims was to help Christians (many of whom were concerned about the sorcery of young Mr. Potter and its influence on their children) think about myth, fantasy, and magic.  Not all magic is equal, I argued, and not all of it should alarm us.  

So this word "sorcery" in St. John's Apocalypse caught my eye recently.  Perhaps sorcery is a bad thing, after all?  The word St. John uses is pharmakos, related to the Greek pharmakeia and to our word "pharmacy."  It means one who makes potions, and especially potions used to poison others

What's wrong with this version of sorcery should be obvious to everyone: it amounts to the idolatry of power and the abuse of nature to worship that idol.  To put it in simpler terms: it is an idolatry of power because it regards human lives as things to be sacrificed on the altar of power.  We kill because we desire to dominate.  Selah.

And it is an abuse of nature because it regards chemistry as a tool of domination of others.  It concocts in order to destroy, and, again, it destroys in order to dominate.

Christians who are concerned about magic should ponder this.  Is God concerned with hand-waving, spells, and incantations?  I doubt it.  But it would appear that God is not pleased with using chemistry to do violence, and with regarding natural science as a tool for domination of other people.  I know it alarms me, at any rate.

I haven't got a quick conclusion here.  My point is not that we need to do away with chemistry or hold witch-hunts for chemists.  But I frequently return to Francis Bacon in his Advancement of Learning, [2] where he offers a way to speed up science by dividing up the four causes that Aristotle said all scientists need to seek.  Bacon suggests that if we can find the material and efficient causes of things - the matter and energy that cause particular contingent states and arrangements of things in the world - that should be enough for science.  Seeking the other two causes - formal and final causation - amounts to something like seeking the meaning of things and their purposes in the world.  To require scientists to seek these things is probably an undue burden on the natural sciences, and it certainly bogs down their progress by engaging them in endless debates about metaphysics and ethics.  Bacon leaves these latter questions to theologians and metaphysicians, freeing natural scientists to much more rapid progress in their research.  Bacon's division of causes was a brilliant stroke, and modern science owes it very much.

In the same book, Bacon finds he must make a defense of chemistry.  He does so by means of an analogy between chemistry and sorcery. [3]  It is prohibited to converse or do business with evil spirits, he says, but it is not prohibited to inquire into their nature and power.  Those who do the former are sorcerers, but those who do the latter are theologians.  Bacon adds, as an aside, that he's not sure either one is doing anything real, because those alleged spirits are "fabulous and fantastical."  Still, the analogy is helpful: it may be unethical to use poisons on other people, but it is certainly not wrong to seek to understand the nature and power of poisons.  So natural science, when it seeks to understand the nature and power of chemical compounds, for instance, is doing something like theology.

Here is where I find myself at a loss: theology has a story it can tell about why we should not converse with demons, and for those who live in the community that is shaped by that story, it is compelling.  But what story can we tell that will teach us how to avoid modern sorcery?  We have traded albs and chasubles for lab coats, and for the most part, this has been a positive development.  But we have not been intentional about telling a good story about science, and we have liberated it from questions of meaning and purpose - a liberation that we have recently begun to question, as we "have become death, the destroyer of worlds."  We have become unwitting sorcerers all, crafting potions that do wider and greater violence than the ancient theologians could have imagined.


[1]  Rev 22.14

[2]  See Bacon, Of the Advancement of Learning, 2.VII.3, e.g.

[3]  Bacon, op. cit., 2.VI.2.

Philosophy Begins in Wonder

Aristotle famously remarked that the love of wisdom - philosophy - begins in wonder.  This is correct.

It has since been noted that philosophy aims at the conclusion of wonder.  This, unlike the first statement, might not be correct.

So much depends on what we understand the aim of philosophy to be.  If we model it on the applied sciences, then its aim is to solve particular problems, in which case it aims to be done with its work.  The conclusion of a chain of reasoning becomes its consummation, and the consummation becomes the end.

But if philosophy should also aim to make us scientists as Peirce understood science - he says it is "the pursuit of those who desire to find things out" and something that is carried out in a community, not by an isolated individual - then it aims not just at solving problems but at introducing us to the world.

Bugbee points out (Inward Morning, August 31 entry) that in wonder, "reality has begun to sink into us."  Think about it: when you really wonder at something, isn't it because of a disclosure?  Wonder may seem to concern what is hidden, but the beginning of wonder is also the beginning of an opening, when the world opens to us.  If it were not so, we would not even know to wonder.

Philosophy teaches us - or ought to teach us - to open ourselves in return.  This opening of ourselves is not the conclusion of wonder but the development of the habit of wonder.  I don't mean the slack-jawed laziness that poses as wonder and pretends that all things are wonderful while being open to none of them, but, as Bugbee puts it, a commitment to being in the wilderness and the patience to let ourselves be " that which can make us at home in this condition."