Sunday, November 28, 2010

No Room In The South Dakota Inn? An unjust and ironic law.

Manny Steele and two other SD legislators are apparently proposing that we criminalize hospitality.  Their proposed law would make it illegal to offer a ride or lodging to illegal immigrants, and it would also make it a crime for an illegal immigrant to ask for work. 

Putting aside the fact that this would be a very difficult law to obey and to enforce (Would bus drivers and cab drivers need to verify citizenship before taking on fares?  Would it be illegal to offer a ride to a stranger?  Would shelters be forced to turn aside illegal immigrants on freezing nights?) this is ironic news to appear on the first Sunday of Advent, the season in which we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  This is the Jesus who was born to poor immigrants who had no place to live in their hometown.  Who was born in a barn.  Whose parents were forced to flee their homeland to escape politically motivated violence. 

I propose that our legislators take some time this Advent to try to put themselves in the shoes of other poor migrants.  Think about it: if you lived in Mexico, would you willingly give up that climate for South Dakota winters if you could avoid it?  Would you give up your hometown, your family, your language, your familiar food - in short, everything - to come to South Dakota if you could avoid it? 

More to the point: Would you make Mary give birth in your barn or your garage?  I understand why you're concerned about jobs and about enforcing our laws.  We have a great country, and we should work to keep it great.  But we will not make our country greater by making our hearts harder.

Meanwhile, as for me and my family, we would rather stand with Mary and Joseph.  And we will continue to say, as Christians and Jews have said for millennia, that an unjust law is no law at all. 

María y José, bienvenidos en nuestro pueblo. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Reading and Writing and Gratitude

It's easy to get too busy to read, and too busy to write.  My sporadic blog posting reflects the cycles of the academic year: some times I'm full of time to post and full of ideas for writing; other times, I'm simply too busy to write.  Those too-busy-to-write times seem to come more often than the other times.

Still, I make myself promise to write -- books, articles, reviews, essays -- as a means of self-discipline.  If I'm reading, I'm learning.  If I'm writing, I'm learning even more.

But I am busy.  So all this posting will do is acknowledge the giants upon whose shoulders I have been sitting this past week: Plato's Phaedrus; Augustine's City of God; Mooney's Lost Intimacy in American Thought; West's Prophetic Fragments and American Evasion of Philosophy; Apuleius' De Deo Socratis  and his Asinus; a handful of Rorty's essays; Royce's Problem of Christianity; a handful of books on environmental philosophy (trying to sort out both some ethical issues and the practical matter of next spring's syllabus!); and, as always, a smattering of Peirce.

No, I don't usually read quite that many books in a week.  (Actually, I think I'm leaving out a half-dozen or so - oh, yeah, there was some Rauschenbusch in there, and some Martin Luther King, too.  Lots of social and political thought about religion, politics, freedom, and creativity, mostly.)

Last week was a marathon of reading and writing.  The result was a book chapter and sketches of about ten other articles.  Not sure they'll all get written - I only have so much time, remember?  But the most important part of this has been not the words on the page, but the way those words have served as a tool for thinking.  For that, and for the life that allows me to do that at all, I am very, very grateful.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

On Writing Philosophy Essays

Writing a philosophy paper?  Here are a few phrases you should probably avoid:

1) "Socrates* feels that X is true."  (We don't know much about his feelings, do we?  Focus on what he said rather than on what you think he felt, unless you're also prepared to explain your insight into his feelings, and the relevance of that insight and of those feelings.) (*Or any other philosopher who doesn't tell us how she is feeling.)

2) "There is no answer to this question." (Do you mean no correct answer?  Why do you think I asked it, by the way?  Let me suggest that, at a minimum, there is an answer given in the texts we read.  If you think it's wrong, I'd be delighted to hear why you think it's wrong, once you've told me clearly what it is.)

3) "I've decided to ignore what the books say and focus on my own opinions here." (Not that your opinions don't matter, but they're deucedly difficult to grade.)

They Know It When They See It

An inmate in the South Dakota State Penitentiary has been denied access to art-instruction books because they contain images of unclothed human bodies.  (Original story here and here.)  While not everything that could be called an art book is a good art book, shouldn't we be doing everything we can to help felons improve their lives?  And isn't art one of the best things they can do while in prison?  Let us grant the prison wardens their claim that pornography worsens prison conditions; does that mean that all nudity is obscenity? (Scroll down to the concurring position of Mr. Justice Stewart.)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

St. Nicholas Society and "un-stealing"

I just read an article about German Catholics wanting a Santa Claus-free Christmas this year.  It reminds me of something I have often spoken to students about: creating a "St. Nicholas Society."  The idea comes from the legend of the young St. Nicholas,

who was the orphaned son of wealthy parents.  One day he overheard a father lamenting that he had to sell one of his three daughters into slavery in order for the rest of the family to survive.  That night Nicholas threw some coins into the family's window to ensure the liberty of the girl, and returned the next two nights to repeat the gift on behalf of the other two girls.  This is why the symbol of St. Nicholas is often three coins:

He wanted his gift to be done in secret, perhaps so that he knew he wasn't giving in order to receive gratitude and honor.  I have come to think of this as the reverse of stealing, a secret giving or an "un-stealing."  

Once, while I was teaching at Penn State, a student told me he was weighing an invitation to join a secret society.  Some aspects of the society were appealing - friendship, loyalty, and a shared purpose, for instance - but he did not feel wholly comfortable with the idea.  I suggested then (and have suggested to several others since) that they consider forming a secret society that was not inwardly-focused but outwardly-focused.  They could call it the "St. Nicholas Society."  Its purpose would be to do good in the world without seeking to receive anything in return.

Of course, I have no idea if any of them have formed a St. Nicholas Society.  If they have, they have been successful at keeping it secret, at least from me!  And you have no idea if I've formed one, or if I just like to talk about it to others.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

New Bio-Itzá Website!

Check it out.

The Asociación Bio Itzá does great, inexpensive Spanish-language immersion programs for individuals or groups in Petén, Guatemala.  It's a short trip from the Flores airport to their school and homestays in San José:

and it's also a short trip to Tikal:

They also have a school for teaching indigenous Mayan languages like Itzá, Quiché, and Kekchí. 

There are some slightly cheaper language schools in Guatemala, but this one makes your money go a long way, since they use the income to preserve and protect one of the largest unbroken stretches of rainforest North of the Amazon, and to preserve indigenous culture, protect archaeological sites, and promote sustainable agriculture.  In addition to learning Spanish, you can learn about medicinal plants; local cooking, music, and culture; rainforest ecology; Mayan archaeology (they have a licensed archaeologist on their staff); and a lot more.  Students interested in rural medicine can ask about arranging to work in the local medical clinic.  Worth every penny.

(Thanks to Luke Lynass and the other Augustana College students who worked to get this new website up and running.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On Enemies

Just heard a very thought-provoking talk by Augustana Professor Janet Blank-Libra on the story of Jonah.  As she was talking, it occurred to me that in the story, God makes this disturbing analogy in Jonah 4.10-11:


It's not the only possible interpretation of the verse, I admit, but it looks like at least one way to read it is that the people I think of as enemies might be as delightful to God as a shady spot in the hot desert was to Jonah.

Sam Harris Needs A Mirror

Sam Harris recently tweeted this column by Nicholas Kristof, adding this tag: "Found: the most sanctimonious person on earth." 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Respect for laws and Respect for the Law

I don't tend to talk about politics - at least not about specific candidates - on my blog or in my classroom.  One of my main reasons for this (I have several) is that as a teacher of philosophy, I am more interested in the ideas than in the people running for office. 

The case of Kristi Noem - a Republican running for Congress in South Dakota - is one of those cases where it's difficult to separate the person from the ideas.  I don't mean that she is inseparable from her politics.  I am instead referring to her driving record

Many people in my state feel that Noem's record has been subjected to enough scrutiny, and that it is just an example of her opponent, Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, playing dirty politics.  The latter may be true (I don't pretend to know), but I don't think the former is true.  I don't mean that we need to have a longer investigation of Noem's driving record.  But I do wonder whether Republicans should be endorsing Noem at all. 

It's not that Noem got caught speeding once.  It's not even that she has been caught speeding 20 times.  It's that her record of breaking the law is so long that it speaks of a strong disrespect for Law in general.  None of us is perfect, but this record suggests that she's a habitual speeder.  One recent ticket had her clocked at 96 mph (the state speed limit is 75 on highways.)  Her actions say pretty loudly that she doesn't much care for the law.  Not a good attribute for someone whose job it would be, if elected, to write the law.

Do we really want to endorse candidates who view the law as something to be obeyed by others but not by themselves?  Isn't that precisely the opposite of the character we want in our legislators?  (Or have I just been reading too much Plato?)

Addendum:  A friend of mine points out that while the link above states it, I do not mention that Noem also has six times failed to appear in court; and she has twice had arrest warrants issued against her.  I'm not just asking Republicans if they want this to be their public face; I'm asking all of us if we want this to be the profile our legislators.  A state in which the legislators do not honor the law is a state in serious trouble.  

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Is Prayer "Effective"?

I recently read a short essay that described prayer as something that should best be studied by the physical sciences.  This claim has been made for quite a long time, and I think there may be some truth to it.

I wonder, though, if the people who make this kind of claim are trying to understand prayer as a kind of incantation.  That is, it seems like they are saying that the best way to examine prayer is to study its effectiveness, by which they mean that some people should ask God for something and then we will measure the frequency with which those prayers are "answered."

Now, I'm no expert on prayer.  And I know that any discussion of prayer is going to get sticky.  But I think this kind of effectiveness study is misguided.  I don't think we should think of prayer as words we say in order to make God do things that God would not otherwise do.  If it were, that would make prayer into a kind of magic, or it would turn God into a kind of technology, or both.

When I read the prayers in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, or when I listen to or read others' prayers, I see something else: the people who pray seem to have the expectation that God will do what God will do, not what they want God to do.  In a way, this makes sense: if God is personal, then God is not to be dominated or pushed around any more than we are.  It seems like most of the prayers I've read sound like requests and arguments and complaints and even like words spoken in love.  Even when (as in the Book of Job) people chastise God for seeming not to act, or when they rebuke or forgive God for not having acted, there seems to be a sense that God is a person, not a tool. 

I think that if we were to look to some of the great works of prayer - the works of the mystics in any tradition, for instance - or even if we were to ask ordinary people why they pray, we would find that their concern is not with whether prayer makes miracles happen but with the way in which prayer manifests and nurtures their relationship with the divine.  I don't really know how to judge that sort of claim, and I often just listen to it in wonder.  But I'm pretty sure that if we were to attempt to measure the "effectiveness" of that prayer, we would wind up ignoring or doing violence to the claim that what matters most in prayer is the conversation and the relationship.

Friday, April 30, 2010

"I Know That I Don't Know"?

If you stroll through the Plaka tourist district in Athens, you'll have ample opportunities to buy t-shirts and other items with the slogan "en oida oti ouden oida," most of which will attribute this saying to Socrates.  It means "I know this one thing: that I know nothing."

Of course, it is a little silly and possibly self-contradictory, since knowing one thing means knowing something, while knowing nothing precludes knowing something.

Still, if Socrates said it, it's worth repeating, right?  (For kicks, Google it and see how many times it is quoted authoritatively.)

But I wonder if Socrates ever said it at all.

Yes, I know that we don't know exactly what Socrates said.  Socrates left us no writings, and as for transcriptions of his conversations, we have only three first-hand sources to rely on: those of Plato and Xenophon his students, and of Aristophanes his ostensible rival.  It seems likely that Aristophanes did not attempt to represent Socrates accurately, nor as a philosopher.  Plato may well have invented much of Socrates' dialogue as well, but he also had a stake in continuing and defending the philosophical work of Socrates in Athens.

For this reason, when philosophers refer to Socrates, we are usually referring to the Socrates found in Plato's rather extensive writings.

So did Plato's Socrates ever say "en oida oti ouden oida"?  It appears not.

The closest thing I've found is a passage in Plato's Apology of Socrates, where Socrates says something that should really be translated as something like this: I do not claim to know those things that I do not know. 

This is not only more reasonable, it's also good advice: don't pretend to know what you don't know and you'll avoid a lot of trouble.

It's important for another reason, though.  The "en oida oti ouden oida" quote seems to be something of a staple of frosh philosophy texts and classes.

The danger here is that we will present an ancient philosopher (two of them, in this case) as though he were fairly foolish; and as a result, we will not take ancient philosophy seriously.

All it should take to cure this is a quick look at the Greek text of any of Plato's dialogues.  The Phaedo, for instance, bears a slow and careful read in Greek, since no translation I've found captures all the wordplay.  And as Peirce pointed out, when one reads the Greek, one discovers something else that the translators often veil from our sight: Plato's Socrates uses the language of syllogism in a way that shows that he was doing Aristotelian logic before Aristotle was.

By relying on hearsay rather than on engagement with the primary texts, we close off a path of inquiry into a whole set of ancient philosophical texts.  "Doesn't their being ancient mean that they are exhausted?" you may ask.  Old trees, it seems to me, may still bear rich fruit.  And just as we find that old caves sometimes have rich troves of ancient unread texts, what else might we find if we take the time to read the ancients closely?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Theology and Theomythy

I was just reading Jamie Smith's recent post on "Poetry and the End of Theology" over at his Fors Clavigera blog.  His post reminded me of something I was thinking of several years ago when I was writing From Homer to Harry Potter.

Back in Homer's time, the words λογος (logos) and μυθος (mythos) were near synonyms.  Over time, they came to be distinguished from one another as meaning something like "an account in propositions" (logos) and "an account in stories" (mythos).

The word "logos" is one of the roots of our word "theology," of course.  Theology, then, means something like the attempt to discuss the divine in a logical and propositional manner.  Which is all well and good, unless it begins to turn God into something we only analyze and never experience, about which we speak propositions but whose story never means much to us.

As a philosopher of religion, I think theology is important.  The things we believe have consequences for us and for others.  As one of my mentors, Ken Ketner, puts it, "Bad thinking kills people."  We know this from experience: people use theological ideas to justify all sorts of unethical behavior.

Nevertheless, theology is pretty dry stuff, and its very dryness has a genealogy and has consequences that we should be aware of.  As Jamie puts it, some of the dryness of contemporary theology comes from a Cartesian anthropology that assumes that the most important part of us is that we are thinking things - things that care chiefly about propositions.  If all we care about is getting our religion right, than this is the kind of theology we need, I suppose.

But is that what we are?  Are we not also beings who live in the world, who live out stories, and who tell stories?  Aren't creativity and poetry and loveliness important to us as well?  This got me thinking: maybe what we need is less theology and more theomythy.  I'm not sure just what that would look like, but I think it might be worth a try.  I'm interested in what you believe, sure.  But I'm also interested in hearing your story. 

Thursday, April 22, 2010

On Traveling and Journaling

It's been too long since I've blogged.  My excuse?  I've been traveling a lot, including quite a bit with students.  In the last few months I've been in Belize, Guatemala, Greece, and the UK with my students.

This probably sounds like a dream life, and I have to admit it's not all that bad.

But it's also a lot of work.  A weeklong class in Greece usually takes me a little over a year to prepare, and in the semester leading up to it the workload approaches the amount of preparation I do for any of my other classes.  Last fall I was teaching my usual load plus prepping two study-abroad courses, so I was swamped much of the time.

But it's worth it.  My students come back with perspectives they could not have gained at home, if their journals are to be believed.

I always require my students to keep a journal while we're traveling.  Sometimes I ask them specific questions, but usually I tell them to journal not for me but for themselves.  You may think this naive, and you may be right.  But I'd rather be naive than cynical.  That is, I'd rather appeal to their self-interest and to their own sense of themselves as growing learners than force them to write answers to my pre-fab questions.

I do give them some guidance, however.  Here are some of the things I teach them about journaling:

1) Pay attention to the little things, and write down whatever catches your attention.  If you noticed it, it probably matters.


2) Pay attention to all of your senses.  We tend to write about major events that happened, as though we were news reporters looking for the big story.  But why not write about the smells?  What sounds do you hear?  What do the birds or the streets or the nighttimes sound like?  How does the place you're in feel on your skin?  What new tastes have you encountered?  And so on.

3) Write continuously.  Don't plan to write a sketch or outline and then fill it in later.  As soon as you are on that plane home you will begin to forget what you experienced, and you will forget far more quickly than you want to believe.  Write now.

4) Write "gestures" and impressions.  Some of us have very good prose composition skills, and some of us do not.  But all of us can write down a few phrases, a few adjectives, a few words we've heard in passing.  Why not include entries in which you stand in one place and write down a list of nouns, of verbs, of adjectives that strike you as you soak the place in?

5) Draw pictures.  This is one of the best pieces of advice I've ever received, and I am no artist.  Cameras are great, but they capture what they see.  Drawing captures what you see.  Drawing also forces you to see what you wouldn't have seen otherwise.  As Louis Agassiz once said, a pencil is one of the best tools for seeing.  One of the best drawing tools I know of is a cheap ball-point pen.  You don't need fancy paper, and you don't need a lot of time.  Most of my best journal drawings are made in under two minutes with a cheap pen.

Try this out, and see if it doesn't completely change your journals.  When I'm in Greece, I like to show my students the different kinds of stonework in ancient walls.  The kind of stonework is helpful for dating the site, and it tells us a lot about the technology of the people who built the walls.  I've found that as I try to draw a section of wall, the differences between cyclopean walls, Lesbian walls, and Roman walls become clearer to me, I remember them better, and I am better able to teach about them.

6) Revisit your journal periodically.  Last of all, when you get back, revisit your journal from time to time.  Start off doing so every week, and then every month and every year.  When you revisit it, add a page or two of notes.  What does your experience traveling back then mean to you now?  Traveling is a luxury some of us enjoy, but it can also be a valuable learning opportunity, one that continues to be valuable for as long as we continue to reflect on it.

Do you have other journaling tips?  I'd love to hear them.  Meanwhile, I've got to get back to preparing for my next trips and courses abroad.

Buen viaje!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Learn Spanish in Guatemala, Help Save the Rainforest

I think the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it.  Read books in the language you want to learn, eat the food of its cultures, and, if at all possible, travel to where it is spoken.

If you're thinking about doing this with Spanish, let me recommend a place to do this in Guatemala: the Asociación Bio-Itzá in San José, Petén, Guatemala, on the Northwest shore of Lake Petén-Itzá.

This is a small, non-profit group run by a few devoted individuals who are trying to preserve their language, their forests, their modes of agriculture, and their communities.  They teach Spanish by full immersion, providing four hours a day of individual instruction tailored to your needs, homestays with delightful local families, and the opportunity to experience both contemporary Guatemalan and traditional Mayan cultures.

So why am I writing about this?  Because their Spanish school is their means of raising money to support a number of other important endeavors including: 
  • Plantas medicinales and Sustainable Agriculture:  They are trying to teach their community the uses of the rainforest plants, and especially the medicinal uses of those plants, before that knowledge is lost.  Along the way, they're trying to promote sustainable agriculture in a place that is being ravaged by slash-and-burn corn farms.  These farms are only productive for 2-3 years on the fragile and thin rainforest soil of the Petén region, after which they are depleted.  The Mayans used a system of crop rotation and of letting land lie fallow as a sustainable means of recharging the forest soils.  
  • Reserva Bio-Itzá: They are preserving one of the largest pieces of unbroken rainforest in the Americas, mostly without government or NGO support.  While we were walking on one of the trails with two of their rangers (they have three) one of them stopped and got an anxious look in his eye.  He held up a hand for us all to be silent.  Very faintly in the distance, we heard it: a chainsaw.  The director of the reserve, who was with us, gravely sent off the other ranger to look into it.  "Sólo mirar, ¡nada más!" he said: just look, but don't do anything else.  The rangers don't carry any weapons and they cannot afford to carry powerful radios or telephones.  So they walk the perimeter trying to intercept people who are hunting endangered animals or cutting down ancient trees.  When they find those people, they use the most powerful tool they have: they talk with the poachers and try to teach them about the forest they are trying to preserve.  When the poachers have automatic weapons, this is a very risky business.  These intrepid rangers consider it worth their while.  Visit the reserve if you are able - it's an amazing education in itself, and the largely unexcavated Mayan ruins there are well worth seeing.
  • Asuntos Sociales:  They provide funding for rural students to stay in school, and are working on a number of other projects to try to improve the well-being of their community.
  • Lenguas Mayas:  One of their earliest movements was an attempt to preserve the Mayan languages of their region: Itzaj, Kek'chi, Mopan, and a handful of others.  One reason to do this is that the names of the plants and animals in those languages are not just names but stories.  Another reason is that the languages used to bind them together as a community.  Unfortunately, they lost a generation that was castigated and fined for speaking in Mayan languages. On the positive side, there is now an institute in San José that is dedicated to preserving and teaching these languages.
If you're interested, send an email to them at escuelabioitza at hotmail dot com.  Or check out their new website.