Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Gift Of A Sponge

My father bundled us into our hats and coats and then into his little red VW and drove us to the Caldor store in Kingston.  The first Christmas I can now remember was fast approaching, and he wanted my brother, my sister and me to choose gifts for our mother.

I had no idea how to shop, of course, so my father asked me to think about what my mother liked.  The only thing I could think was that I often saw her cleaning things: washing dishes, cleaning floors and windows, doing laundry.  Obviously, she must like cleaning quite a lot.

So I decided to buy her a sponge.

My father balked at this, but I insisted.  This is what she likes, this is what I want to buy.

Two events that followed have imprinted themselves forever on my memory, have made me forever grateful to my parents.

Dad and Mom were young once, too.
First, Dad let me buy it.  It's not at all what he would have chosen.  But he gave me the gift of letting me decide, the gift of the long, slow welcome into responsible adulthood.

Second, mom loved it.  Let me clarify that: she loved the gift, and she thanked me warmly and genuinely, smilingly.  And so she gave me a gift as well, the gift of teaching me how to receive the offerings of others with grace; the gift of her love that consecrated my poor offering.

Both of them gave me another gift as well, of course: I had no money to buy the sponge, so I used theirs.  I took their money and spent it on what they did not need, on a gift that, coming from another person or from me at a different age, would have been offensive.  They gave me the gift of ennobling my shabby token into a gift of great worth.

No year of my life has passed in which I have not thought of that kitchen sponge.  It reminds me that no act of kindness towards a child is wasted.  It reminds me of my parents' love for me, love that I fumblingly attempt to pass on to my children as I seek to give them the difficult gift of autonomy.

A gift from my students; it means more to me than words can easily say.

And my parents, in that Christmas, gave me hope that the poor offerings of my worship - in which I spend what is not really mine in order to give a gift that is not really needed - might really matter, not because they are intrinsically great, but because of the love and grace with which they might be received, and consecrated.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Love One Another: Prisons and Devotion to Enemies

In his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King wrote "We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself."  Paraphrasing Gandhi, he added a word  for those who considered themselves his enemies, "In winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process."

This is a radical idea, one that is like the ideas of Jesus and St Paul that we should love our enemies.  If your mind does not stumble over those words, you might be a saint; or you might not be listening to them.

King's argument is that we need our enemies.  They need us to make them into the kind of people who embody love, not hatred.  And we need - in the depths of our souls - the work of loving them in such a way that we win them over to the side of love and away from the crippling hatred that owns them.

It is easy to say "that's fine for church," or "I will love my enemy in my heart but in my life I will punish him."  But what would happen if we thought of our worst enemies - I have in mind criminals and terrorists, the people we most seem to fear - as people with a "heart and conscience" that could be won.  As people without whom we are incomplete.

We're good at finding ways to make people pay for their wrongdoing.  We have great technology for warfare, and a brilliant system of criminal investigation and prosecution, perhaps the best history has ever seen.  I don't propose eliminating those things.  Instead, I am asking this: what if we decided that we would put the same creative energy and financial resources that have gone into creating our fine military, police, and courts into winning the consciences of our enemies?

When it comes to our anti-terror policies, I don't see what we can do to win terrorists' consciences, other than living our lives in such a way that anyone who supports our would-be enemies must feel shame at hating such virtuous people. That sounds to me like an end worth pursuing for its own sake, after all.

As for our prisons, our prisons seem to be good at exposing non-criminals to criminals; and to exposing criminals to more criminals, breeding gang culture.  Violent criminals surely merit our censure, extraction from society, and punishment.  But that doesn't mean our hearts need to be full of a desire for vengeance.

"Peace."  Over the head of the angel of peace in Bruton Parish, Williamsburg, VA. 
I'm not good at this, but I'm trying to become the kind of person who regards criminals as people I need, who need me to love them, who need me to win their consciences.

I believe a society needs to be prepared to use force against those who would forcefully harm others.  But increasingly I am coming to believe that individuals in each society also need to be prepared to fight fire not with fire but with the healing waters of love, waters that overflow from hearts that daily struggle to regard the people we most hate and fear as the people we also most need to love.  It's not easy.  But it may be the only way to become "a community at peace with itself."

I have written two other posts about prisons, and Charles Peirce's reasons why our current system is a mark of insanity--or at least that it evinces a serious lack of love--here and here.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Do Birds Need Ornithologists?

Cooper's hawk in my backyard.
A number of times in the last few years I've read statements by prominent scientists about the irrelevance of philosophy, echoing Richard Feynman's famous quip that "Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds."

Feynman was just talking about philosophers of science, which is just one narrow slice of the philosophic pie.  More recently others, like Freeman Dyson, have made broader indictments of philosophy, or like Lawrence Krauss, of the humanities generally.

Dyson, in an article he wrote for the New York Review of Books, described today's philosophers as "a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening. They are historically insignificant."  Yes, we have a technical vocabulary that outsiders often have trouble understanding.  But that's true of every discipline.  And yes, we don't seem to have anyone in our discipline who is writing the next Job or Republic right now, but that's been true almost always.  No discipline consistently produces nothing but geniuses.  Many of us in every discipline live our careers out bearing the gifts of the past forward to another generation so that they might benefit from them and add to them. And many of us are content to be forgotten as long as the books of wisdom entrusted to us are remembered.
Female ruby-throated hummingbird.

In his recent book A Universe From Nothing, Krauss seems to be at pains to point out that without the sciences, the humanities are virtually useless, and that even with the sciences, the humanities are still virtually useless.  His introduction pushes the humanities back at arm's length and invites them to clear out while science handles all the real heavy lifting.

What stands out for me as I read these scientists and some others writing in a similar vein is that they write like they're on the defensive and feeling embattled.  My guess is that they see themselves or their disciplines as being engaged in an important fight about cultural values, science education, and research funding.  The outsized reaction to Thomas Nagel's recent Mind and Cosmos - with its inflammatory subtitle, "Why The Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False" - suggests that many advocates of the sciences worry about any book that might give comfort to the enemy.

Mourning dove eggs in one of my flower pots.
A siege mentality can make us distrustful of everyone, and especially of our critics, no matter how friendly.  Dyson, Krauss, and others inclined to sideline the humanities would do well to remember that the humanities give them the tools with which to reason and write about the discoveries of science.  If those of us in the humanities seem critical of the sciences, this doesn't mean we're unfriendly. The funny thing about Feynman's dictum is that as long as birds and people try to live together, birds actually do benefit from ornithologists.  After all, ornithologists study the birds and their environments, and work to ensure that others see how important it is to preserve them.  Of course, the birds in their daily lives will likely never know it.


I should add that philosophers like me benefit from ornithologists, too.  I am especially grateful for the ornithologists at Cornell University for putting so much helpful information on their website for bird-watchers and ornithophiles like me.  

The bird I have identified as a Cooper's hawk might be a sharp-shinned hawk; I often have trouble distinguishing them.  We live on the migration path for ruby-throated hummingbirds, so we see them for two brief seasons, once in the spring and again in the fall.  Mourning doves are notoriously poor parents, and we often find they've laid eggs in silly places.  Fortunately for their species, they can produce multiple clutches each year.

If you're interested in both birds and philosophy, let me recommend Charles Hartshorne's book Why Birds Sing. Hartshorne suggests that maybe birds sing because they enjoy it.  This may seem so obvious as to be silly, but it is a helpful addition to the usual claims that birds sing because singing is useful for mating, staking territorial claims, self-defense, and so on.  Hartshorne doesn't allow us to reduce birds to bird-making machines.  Which is helpful, because it's a reminder that we, too, are more than human-making machines.  It's also good to be reminded that it's okay to sing for the sheer enjoyment of singing.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Drones and Virtue

My latest article, on UAV (drone) warfare and virtue ethics, co-authored with John Kaag. It's behind a paywall, but your local library might have a subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education where you can see it in print (in the Chronicle Review, March 11, 2013) or through their library website.

So, How's The Sabbatical Going?

That's a question I've been hearing a lot this year, and understandably so.  Most of my friends and my students have never experienced one.  I hope that all of them have a chance to take a sabbatical someday so they can see for themselves what a gift it is.  Since so many of my students wonder what I am doing when I'm not on campus, I'm writing this mostly for them.  Many of them have (very sweetly!) told me they miss me.  Let me assure them: it's mutual.  But it has also been very good for me to take this year away from the classroom.

Sabbaticals and Long Service Leaves

Sabbaticals can be seasons of letting dry husks bear new life.
By coincidence, a handful of my friends were on some sort of sabbatical last summer.  Mostly they work for tech firms that recognize that sabbaticals make for more creative, more productive workers.  One of them was enjoying a long service leave that Australian law mandates.

Most jobs in the United States don't offer sabbaticals, but I'm fortunate enough to have one that does.  Sometimes my kids chide me for choosing a job with relatively low pay, but self-regulated time is something money can't easily buy.  I think I chose my career pretty well.

I say "self-regulated time" because my sabbatical isn't early retirement or a long vacation.  My job as a college professor has three basic components: teaching, scholarship, and service.  A sabbatical frees me from the first of those components, and from parts of the third.  More precisely, it frees me from the daily tasks of teaching and service, but I expect that at the end of this year I will be a better teacher because I've had time to do research and to tear down and rebuild some of my classes.  And any college capable of taking the long view knows that faculty who take sabbaticals can render better service over the long haul. 

What I've been doing

To the casual observer it probably looks like I've spent a lot of time in coffee shops and airports, and not much else.  For the last three years I've devoted myself to teaching and service, giving only a little of my time to scholarship.  So when I began my sabbatical my scholarly life felt like deep waters pent up behind a strained dam.  Over the last few years I've sketched out five books and seven articles and book chapters.  Over my sabbatical I hoped to get maybe one book and a couple of articles done.  That may not sound like much, but it's fairly ambitious, given how much time it takes to do the research and to write well.

Since my job description breaks down into the three parts I mentioned above, let me say a few words about what I've been doing this year in each of those areas.

Writing: As for academic writing, so far, I've completed one book (on brook trout), and made significant progress on two others (both on the philosophy of religion).   Once I get them done, books four and five are ready to go, too.  I've submitted one book chapter for someone else's book, and I'm about to submit another.  I've written a few book reviews for popular and scholarly journals, too.  Last week I gave a lecture at the College of William and Mary on war and evil.  Now I'm preparing that lecture for publication as a journal article.  By the time this sabbatical is over, I hope to have at least one book under contract and two more articles sent off for review.  I've also done some more popular writing, including a couple of articles on virtue ethics in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Chronicle Review - one on guns and one on the ethics of drones or UAVs.  Perhaps most importantly, I've been writing every day.  As you can see, I've been trying to write quickly here on this blog a couple of times a week, and I've been writing in a lot of other places as well.  Like any other skill, it comes more fluidly with practice.

Snail shells grow by slow accumulation, as habits do. 
Teaching: I've also had the pleasure of planning some new classes, including one I plan to co-teach on environmental science and ecology, and a course for alumni I'll teach in Greece this summer with another Classics professor.  And I have a whopping stack of books I've wanted to read that I've been devouring hungrily.  When you're the professor, it's also good to be the student as often as possible.

Service: Even though I'm away from campus, my heart is still there.  Everything I do as a professor winds up leaning back towards the classroom, which means towards my students.  Nothing I do matters more than the people I do it with and for, I think.  I must have written sixty letters of recommendation for students this year (which is more time-intensive than one might think).  Sabbatical has also given me the chance to help some colleagues here and at other universities.  I've been helping half a dozen friends who teach Classics, Philosophy, and Biology at other universities by reading and commenting on drafts of their essays and books.  And I've done a lot of "double-blind" reviewing for six or seven academic publishers who want advice on whether to publish certain books or journal articles.  Best of all has been time to collaborate with colleagues in far-off places, corresponding with professors and graduate students around the world about philosophy, ecology, Scriptural Reasoning, Henry Bugbee, Charles Peirce, C.S. Lewis, and other matters close to my heart.  I list this as "service" but I could just as well call it "ways I've learned from other people far away."

The license plate on the rental car I had at a recent conference.
But Have You Taken Some Time To Rest?

Yes.  The word "sabbatical" has its roots in a Hebrew word, shabbath, meaning "to rest." It would be a shame not to use the time to get some rest.  Last summer I spent two weeks in a writing retreat sponsored by Oregon State at their Shotpouch Creek Cabin with my friend and co-author Matthew Dickerson.  We were working, but what restful work it can be to live, think, and write quietly with a friend.  We spent half of each day writing, and the other half talking, hiking, fishing, wading in the ocean.  We borrowed some hymnals from an Episcopal church in Eugene and spent part of each evening singing as the sun declined behind the coastal range.

On my way to Oregon, I drove my sons to the coast last summer to look at colleges, to go whale-watching, and to watch some professional soccer matches. When I got home to Sioux Falls, I joined a gym and I became my son's rec league soccer coach. This is his last year of living at home with us, and I can't tell you how grateful I am to have this time with him before adulthood takes him off on the next leg of his life's journey.  Despite all the work, and travel, and writing, I've had more time with my wife and my kids, and more time for self-care. I feel much healthier and fitter now than I did a year ago.  I have a feeling my family is better off for that, too.

I wish everyone, regardless of their line of work, could have an experience like this every few years.  It might remind us all what matters. It's expensive, I know.  I took a hefty pay cut from an already modest salary to have this year off, and thankfully our savings have been enough to get us through.  (And writing and lecturing makes me a few extra ducats to send to my daughter in college from time to time or to spend on my boys at home.)

No doubt some people will read this and wonder why my college is willing to pay me anything at all when I'm not showing up to work.  The answer is that some colleges still take the long view.  You have to put aside your monthly planner and get a calendar that measures time and value "not by the times but by the eternities" (pace Thoreau), that looks down the years the way a carpenter holds a plank to her eye and looks down the full length of the board rather than seeing only the grain of what is nearest. Money has been spent on me this year by people who thought it worthwhile to let me stretch from my cramped pose.  They have let me drink from distant streams so that I can come back nourished not just by the Big Sioux and the Missouri but by the waters of Oregon and New York and Virginia - and in some sense by the Hippocrene itself.

So that's what I've been doing.  I'm sorry I haven't been around campus much.  In the long run, what I've been doing should make my return to campus a very good one indeed.  I can't wait to tell you more about what I've learned this year once I return.