Archive for November, 2007
Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science; this kind of hope is deceptive. Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it. On the other hand, we must also acknowledge that modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its taskâ€”even if it has continued to achieve great things in the formation of man and in care for the weak and the suffering.
It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love. This applies even in terms of this present world. When someone has the experience of a great love in his life, this is a moment of redemption which gives a new meaning to his life. But soon he will also realize that the love bestowed upon him cannot by itself resolve the question of his life. It is a love that remains fragile. It can be destroyed by death. The human being needs unconditional love. He needs the certainty which makes him say: neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. If this absolute love exists, with its absolute certainty, then – only then – is man redeemed, whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances….
In this sense it is true that anyone who does not know God, even though he may entertain all kinds of hopes, is ultimately without hope, without the great hope that sustains the whole of life. Man’s great, true hope which holds firm in spite of all disappointments can only be God – God who has loved us and who continues to love us to the end, until all is accomplished. Whoever is moved by love begins to perceive what life really is. He begins to perceive the meaning of the word of hope that we encountered in the Baptismal Rite: from faith I await eternal life – the true life which, whole and unthreatened, in all its fullness, is simply life. Jesus, who said that he had come so that we might have life and have it in its fullness, in abundance, has also explained to us what â€œlifeâ€ means: this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we live.
I hope to say more about this soon.
“But very often, and almost daily, I have strong impressions of eternity.” That’s a line from a protagonist in Saul Bellow’s book, Mr. Sammler’s Planet.
Today is one of those days for me. Yesterday, I called in sick. In my world, “calling in sick” means spending 9 hours at my dining room table working on RFP’s, copyediting, and writing an essay that is rapidly becoming due, in between frequent trips to the “powder room.” (Where is that powder, anyway??). The “highlight” of my day was to be attending the funeral mass of a La Salle professor–a good man, a good philosopher, and a very good teacher who died too soon. Alas, I did not make it to the services. As it turned out, another good man and good teacher, a colleague of my wife, suffered a catastrophic illness/accident and was rushed to the nearby hospital late yesterday afternoon. My wife and I ran up to the hospital, and my dear wife comforted her colleague’s wife in the E.R. until more family could arrive. We were there a few hours.
To stay out of the way in the treatment room, I stood in the hallway of the E.R., which put me, instead, in the way of a parade of passing gurneys, various mobile medical apparatuses, paramedics, cops, doctors, nurses, and aids. I noticed across the hall–hard not to at a distance of about three feet–from our friend, was an elderly woman on her own gurney, in the hall, more or less being ignored. She seemed to sleep most of the time. At one point, an orderly took her for testing, then returned her to her spot in the hall a few minutes later. Eventually, I noticed that she had awakened, so of course I asked her if she snored. “Do I what?” she asked. “Do you snore? I notice they won’t let you in a room with anyone.” She said, “I think this is my room.” I said, “Well, you have the biggest room in the place. Lot of traffic, though….”
Jean–that’s her name (she has sisters named June and Joan…bet I’d like their parents!)–proceeded to tell me some of her story. She’d been in the hospital for 6 hours by that time. She was hungry, but wasn’t allowed any food. (She warned me not to get too close, that she might take a bite out of me she was so hungry!) (Yeah, I have that effect on women…). She also told me that she is a 32 year survivor of breast cancer. To what does she attribute her success in the battle? “Sense of humor. You gotta laugh.”
So, in my mind are thoughts of a dear man who died too soon; to my back is a man facing his own mortality with anxious family at his side; and in front of me, a little old lady, strapped to a rolling bed, tubes in her, bruises from being poked and prodded, cancer prowling her body like a beast, who is cracking wise.
Something in all that gave me the strong impression of eternity.
Plus, it made me forget my tender tummy.
Saul Bellow reflects on God and religion, sort of, in the pages of Forward. Here’s a portion:
In “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” the protagonist declares, “But very often, and almost daily, I have strong impressions of eternity.”
[Bellow]: There are moments when God shadows existence. And he persists in this manifestation. If you’re looking for revelatory fragments in what I’ve written I can help you: In another passage of the book I write that the purest human beings, from the beginning of time, have understood that life is sacred,” and if I remember correctly I refer more than once to the will of God.
But in “Herzog” you write, “History is the history of cruelty, not love, as soft men think. If the old God exists he must be a murderer.”
I could answer that Herzog is a literary character. But I want to tell you I believe that a man’s life is also made of moments of desperation and rage. And it has to include a continuous reflection on this mystery: Herzog reflects on mankind’s constant abominations, but that never interrupts his own relations with God.
In the latest edition of Commonweal, there are two reflections [subscription req.] on Mother Teresa’s long–very long–dark night of her soul, as revealed in her recently published journal entries. John P. O’Callaghan of Notre Dame looks at it this way:
Faith, in the sense of fidelity, is neither emotional stability nor an attitude to a set of propositions. It is an adherence of the will to some good; it is constancy. No one has claimed that Teresa of Calcutta ever ceased to adhere to the object of her faith, whatever her mood, whatever her doubts. On the contrary, there is ample evidence that she stood fast from the day God first bound her to himself. The depth of Mother Teresa’s sense of abandonment would seem to be a measure of her love-and of the strength of her initial union with God. From those to whom much has been given, much is demanded. It is no judgment on those of us to whom God has not granted such a sense of union that his absence doesn’t cause us to suffer as much as it caused her to suffer. But it may be a judgment on us if, in our industriousness and distraction, we do not feel that absence at all.
For now, we may only speculate. Maybe God withheld every consolation from Teresa so that she would not become preoccupied with her own undeniable holiness. Maybe he laid bare the extraordinary gift of faith he gave her so that she would look for the glorified Christ not within her own religious experience, but in the faces of the poor. Glory to God in the lowest. By giving us saints like Mother Teresa, he keeps us from mistaking spiritual comfort for fidelity.
Joan French Baumel marvels:
Mother Teresa wrote, Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” The wonder is that this blessed woman of kind words would continue for years to help the poor and to encourage millions to care for others, while she herself suffered the agony of doubting the very existence of God, who was her very reason for being. Lacking a sense of God’s presence in her life, she carried on with her wonderful work. What courage! I and many others like me have had doubts about the faith and have gone on with our daily duties and careers, but how many have borne such painful doubt for as long as she did-or changed the world as much?
Wisdom and wonder, strong impressions of eternity. Say a prayer for John and his family and colleagues. Say a prayer for Joan and hers. And tip your cap to the memory of a good man, a good philosopher, and a very good teacher (who, I’m thinking, probably had his own experience with dark nights): Mike Kerlin:
Michael J. Kerlin, La Salle professor
By JOHN F. MORRISON
Philadelphia Daily News
IN HIS FINAL hospitalization for leukemia, Michael J. Kerlin kept the conversation going on the topics that had consumed his life – philosophy and religion.
Colleagues from La Salle University, where he had been a much-honored teacher of philosophy for 40 years, showed up in his hospital room and the conversations continued until the second-to-last day of his life.
He died Friday. He was 71 and lived in Lafayette Hill.
Michael had a lifelong passion for learning and one of his goals as a teacher was to expand the minds of his students. He continued to advise them on their papers even after being hospitalized.
He took a copy of “Teach Yourself New Testament Greek” into the hospital, and three days before his death he asked his son-in-law, Kayvan Nasser-Ghodsi, for some lessons in Farsi.
He already spoke five languages and dabbled in a dozen more, including Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew and Arabic.
Family members called him “the man who came before Google when you needed to know something.”
Michael was a leading scholar on the works of the French philosopher Maurice Blondel. He published more articles and book reviews than any other La Salle professor.
“He is the father of us all,” said colleague Hank Domochowski.
Michael was born in North Philadelphia to Mary McGinley Kerlin, from County Donegal, Ireland, and Michael “Mack” Kerlin, from County Tyrone. The family later moved to Southwest Philadelphia.
At 16, while attending West Catholic High School, he joined the Christian Brothers. He was a teacher and debate coach for a time at Bishop O’Connell High School, in Arlington, Va., and began his professorship at La Salle. He left the Brothers in 1970.
He received a bachelor’s degree in English from La Salle in 1957. He received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Gregorian University in Rome in 1967, and a Ph.D. in religion from Temple in 1974. He received a master’s in finance from La Salle in 1988 at the age of 52. He was a former chairman of the La Salle Philosophy Department, a post he held for 28 years.
The chairman, Marc Moreau, wrote of Michael’s “knack for transferring the affection students developed for him into a broader openness and appreciation for the larger world around them.”
He received the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1986 and the Distinguished La Sallian Educator Award last year. Brother Michael J. McGinniss, La Salle president and a former student of Michael’s, said, “I know first-hand why he was selected for this award. I profited from his knowledge of subject matter, from the contagious enthusiasm he brought to his teaching, and from the friendship he naturally and unfailingly extended to his students.”
When the current school year opened, Michael commented, “I love this place so much, I’m going to stay around for as long as I can.”
He is survived by his wife, the former Mary Ann Williams, a reading specialist in the North Penn School District; a son, Michael, a management consultant, and a grandson.
Donations may be made to La Salle University Philosophy Department, 1900 W. Olney Ave., Philadelphia PA 19141.
The Islamist question, in the forefront of European and American thinking, might be put this way: Should support go to “enlightened fundamentalists” or to “Muslim dissidents”? (I have some problems with referring to any believer as “fundamentalist”…) Another way would be to ask, should we promote difference-based “multiculturalism” or resemblance-based “universalism”?
There’s no denying that the enemies of freedom come from free societies, from a slice of the enlightened elite who deny the benefits of democratic rights to the rest of humanity, and more specifically to their compatriots, if they’re unfortunate enough to belong to another religion or ethnic group.
It is well known that in the struggle of the weak against the strong, it is easier to attack the former. Those who resist will always be accused by the cowardly of exciting the hatred of the powerful.
Thus the defenders of liberty are styled as fascists, while the fanatics are portrayed as victims! This vicious mechanism is well known. Those who revolt against barbarism are themselves accused of being barbarians. In politics as in philosophy, the equals sign is always an abdication. If thinking involves weighing one’s words to name the world well, drawing comparisons in other words, then levelling distinctions testifies to intellectual bankruptcy. Shouting CRS = SS as in May ’68, making Bush = Bin Laden or equating Voltaire to Savonarola is giving cheap satisfaction to questionable approximations. Similarly, the Enlightenment is often depicted as nothing but another religion, as mad and intransigent as the Catholicism of the Inquisition or radical Islam. After Heidegger, a whole run of thinkers from Gadamer to Derrida have contested the claims of the Enlightenment to embody a new age of self-conscious history. On the contrary, they say, all the evils of our epoch were spawned by this philosophical and literary episode: capitalism, colonialism, totalitarianism. For them, criticism of prejudices is nothing but a prejudice itself, proving that humanity is incapable of self-reflection. For them, the chimeras of certain men of letters who were keen to make a clean slate of God and revelation, were responsible for plunging Europe into darkness. In an abominable dialectic, the dawn of reason gave birth to nothing but monsters (Horkheimer, Adorno).
Anyone with a mind to contend timidly that liberty is indivisible, that the life of a human being has the same value everywhere, that amputating a thief’s hand or stoning an adulteress is intolerable everywhere, is duly arraigned in the name of the necessary equality of cultures. As a result, we can turn a blind eye to how others live and suffer once they’ve been parked in the ghetto of their particularity. Enthusing about their inviolable differentness alleviates us from having to worry about their condition. However it is one thing to recognise the convictions and rites of fellow citizens of different origins, and another to give one’s blessing to hostile insular communities that throw up ramparts between themselves and the rest of society. How can we bless this difference if it excludes humanity instead of welcoming it? This is the paradox of multiculturalism: it accords the same treatment to all communities, but not to the people who form them, denying them the freedom to liberate themselves from their own traditions. Instead: recognition of the group, oppression of the individual. The past is valued over the wills of those who wish to leave custom and the family behind….
Out of consideration for all the abuses they may have suffered, ethnic, sexual, religious and regional minorities are often set up as small nations, in which the most outrageous patriotism is passed off as nothing more than the expression of legitimate self-esteem. Instead of celebrating freedom as the power to escape determinism, the repetition of the past is being encouraged, reinforcing the power of collective coercion over private individuals. Marginal groups now form a sort of ethos-police, a flag-waving micro-nationalism which certain countries of Europe unfortunately see fit to publicly support. Under the guise of celebrating diversity, veritable ethnic or confessional prisons are established, where one group of citizens is denied the advantages accorded to others.
The Enlightenment belongs to the entire human race, not just to a few privileged individuals in Europe or North America who have taken it upon themselves to kick it to bits like spoiled brats, to prevent others from having a go. Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism is perhaps nothing other than a legal apartheid, accompanied – as is so often the case – by the saccarine cajolery of the rich who explain to the poor that money doesn’t guarantee happiness. We bear the burdens of liberty, of self-invention, of sexual equality; you have the joys of archaism, of abuse as ancestral custom, of sacred prescriptions, forced marriage, the headscarf and polygamy. The members of these minorities are put under a preservation order, protected from the fanaticism of the Enlightenment and the “calamities” of progress.
Multiculturalism is a racism of the anti-racists.
And that’s just a little taste. Bruckner spends most of his essay defending the free-thinking Hirsi Ali from what he sees as patronizing European critics, particularly Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Baruna, and reserves his most acid shots at Ramadan mainly in the footnotes.
But is there another side of this story? Signandsight.com offers an array of responses to Bruckner’s piece.
Garton Ash’s rejoinder takes issue with just about every one of Bruckner’s claims. It starts like this:
Pascal Bruckner is the intellectual equivalent of a drunk meandering down the road, arguing loudly with some imaginary enemies. He calls these enemies “Timothy Garton Ash” and “Ian Buruma” but they have very little to do with the real writers of those names.
For instance, Garton Ash turns the essence of the critique back on Bruckner. Bruckner has railed against the tactic of branding any critic of Islam as “Islamophobe racist.” Fair enough. Yet, says Garton Ash, Bruckner makes the same move by disqualifying Garton Ash’s disagreement the the Somali woman Hirsi Ali as inherently racist and sexist.
As so often happens in these sorts of debates, most of the response concerns disputes over ad hominems and about what Garton Ash has written.Â But on the central philosophical and political question, “multiculturalism” or no, Garton Ash writes:
Having commented in my New York Review essay that “I regard it as a profound shame for Holland and Europe that we could not keep among us someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali” I went on to suggest that her approach “is not showing the way forward for most Muslims in Europe, at least not for many years to come. A policy based on the expectation that millions of Muslims will so suddenly abandon the faith of their fathers and mothers is simply not realistic. If the message they hear from us is that the necessary condition for being European is to abandon their religion, then they will choose not to be European.” I continue to insist that this is an obvious truth, and an important criticism of the position adopted by both Ali and Bruckner.
While defending the fundamentals of a free society, such as freedom of expression, with an iron will, we also need a large tolerance for cultural diversity, the essential insights of Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism, and an acknowledgment that religious believers can at the same time be reasonable persons and good citizens. In short: less Bruckner, more Pascal.
As it turns out, Bruckner’s original piece makes a similar point, this time in the guise of Enlightenment (Modernity) and Romanticism.
The entire history of the 20th century attests to the fanaticism of modernity. And it’s incontestable that the belief in progress has taken on the aspect of a faith, with its high priests from Saint Simon to August Comte, not forgetting Victor Hugo. The hideous secular religions of Nazism and communism, with their deadly rituals and mass massacres, were just as gruesome as the worst theocracies – of which they, at least as far as communism goes, considered themselves the radical negation. More people were killed in opposition to God in the 20th century than in the name of God. No matter that first Nazism and then communism were defeated by democratic regimes inspired by the Enlightenment, human rights, tolerance and pluralism. Luckily, Romanticism mitigated the abstraction of the Enlightenment and its claims to having created a new man, freed from religious sentiment and things of the flesh.
Today we are heirs to both movements, and understand how to reconcile the particularity of national, linguistic and cultural ties with the universality of the human race. Modernity has been self-critical and suspicious of its own ideals for a long time now, denouncing the sacralisation of an insane reason that was blind to its own zeal. In a word, it acquired a certain wisdom and an understanding of its limits. The Enlightenment, in turn, showed itself capable of reviewing its mistakes. Denouncing the excesses of the Enlightenment in the concepts that it forged means being true to its spirit. These concepts are part and parcel of the contemporary make up, to the point that even religious fanatics make use of them to promote their cause. Whether we like it or not, we are the sons of this controversial century, compelled to damn our fathers in the language they bequeathed to us. And since the Enlightenment triumphed even over its worst enemies, there is no doubt that it will also strike down the Islamist hydra, provided it believes in itself and abstains from condemning the rare reformers of Islam to the darkness of reprobation.
As Buruna writes in his own rejoinder to Bruckner, none of those who are arguing for dialogue and accommodation of difference are supporters of practices like revenge killing and oppression of women. They are hoping to find a balance and a measured progress. They worry, as an earlier generation worried over Marxist thought, about the dangers of the ideology of inevitable progress. If the revolution is inevitable, why wait through all these historical stages? If libertarian freedom is inevitable, why tolerate even so much as discussion of views critical of libertarian freedom?
Is the perfect the enemy of the good? Or does resting comfortably with half-measures unnecessarily and unjustifiably deprive us of our ultimate fulfillment? If you think the latter, the result will likely be Terror. If you think the former, the result will likely be accommodation, compromose, homogenization, lowest common denominator, and eventually political correctness…which, itself, is well on the way to Terror. Rock and a hard place….
But if I have to answer the question, Tariq Ramadan or Ayaan Hirsi Ali?, (and I am not sure I do…), I would say: Both, please! And then some.
I couldn’t agree more with this assessment by Glenn T. Miller, academic dean and professor of ecclesiastical history at Bangor Theological Seminary, on the decision to split the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings. In a piece by Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Miller is also reported to believe nothing “sinister” about the split:
“Do I think it’s a conspiracy? No,” he said. “Academics don’t have enough energy for conspiracy.”
Well, maybe not…but it might be a conspiracy nonetheless. Get a few drinks in one or two of those in the know–not a difficult task–and you will get a preview of the much-mentioned (at the AAR/SBL meeting in San Diego) but not yet presented survey that was taken of members of both organizations: almost no one at all approved of the decision. So why was it made?
Now there will be two annual meetings in 2008, with the AAR convening in Chicago (November 1-3) and the SBL in Boston (November 21-25). This is bad for a number of reasons other than just the intellectual and, indeed, spiritual problems it causes. Who has time for yet another conference? And another conference means even more travel, and that is bad for body, soul, and the environment.
This last point is made by Joyce Appleby and Nikki Keddie in their piece for Inside Higher Ed: “Is This Trip Really Necessary?”
It’s probably news to most people that many scholars and administrators fly back and forth across the continent and around the globe about as frequently as movie stars. The number of conferences bringing together historians, biologists, physicists and their peers on a regular basis is staggering.
Every discipline and many sub-disciplines have national associations – many of them also have regional and international associations that gather their members at least once a year. The number of such associations and the size of their conventions keeps growing. Though the conventions of major associations do some important business, especially in job-hunting, the meetings are far larger and more numerous than this business requires.
Compounding the problem are all the student recruitment trips, job searches with campus visits, one-off lecture events with just a handful of attendees, and development officers traveling the country to raise money to support in part (what else?) academic travel. As Appleby and Keddie put it, the very instution that alerted us to environmental degradation is itself a key offender.
The authors aren’t calling for a complete moratorium on travel, and neither am I. I log a lot of miles myself. I am not fully persuaded of the glories of a purely virtual world, and nothing can replace a face-to-face encounter with colleagues and collaborators. And travel to foreign countries is a great tonic for cultural sensitivity and expanded horizons.
That said, not every conference I’ve had to attend has been (if I may be honest) worth the effort. I recently gave a presentation to a group of academics in Stuttgart from the comfort of my own office here in the States (using Skype, for free!), and it got the job done without a single technological hiccup, even though set up by a couple of amateurs (one of whom was me).
We will never be able to give up travel all together, nor should we even try. We live at a time in which it is possible to see all of this world we inhabit, and the desire to do so is natural. True, there are pernicious effects of “nature travel,” whereby places like Nepal and safari sites in Africa are wrecked by rich travelers seeking “adventure.” But the drive to see what there is to be seen is in our general make-up, and it’s not a bad thing.
Yet there are things we can do to mitigate the environmental effects of our work, and to the extent that we can, we should try to be a little gentler as we make our way in this world.
Here’s wishing you all a very grateful Thanksgiving holiday. Some resources at Christianity.com and from the History Channel. Feeling a bit sleepy after the Turkey? Here’s why…. And you remember the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and George have to find a way to get Celia to let them play with her collectible toys:
GEORGE: More wine and turkey? (Pours Celia more wine)
CELIA: Hmm. (takes a sip)
JERRY: So when I saw George on the street with an 18 pound turkey and a giant box of wine, I thought: … What a coincidence. We’re just about to eat.
CELIA: What is that stuff in turkey that makes you sleepy?
JERRY and GEORGE: Tryptophan.
JERRY: … I think. Have some more wine. (Jerry pours his whole glass of wine into her glass.)
CELIA: What video did you get?
JERRY: Oh, George brought home movies of his boyhood trip to Michigan.
GEORGE: Four hours.
JERRY: More heavy gravy?
(Celia is sleeping )
Anyway, play nice this weekend. There’s plenty to be thankful for. Here’s a little of what I’m thankful for: Kellie, Elisa, Lucas, Mom, Dad, Gail, Art, Helen, the whole rest of my wacky family, Seinfeld re-runs, Dexter Gordon’s ballads, Tom Merton, Mildred Ice (my 9th grade English teacher) and pretty much everyone who has ever taught me anything, tackle football, Springsteen concerts, Rioja, used book stores, my iPod, Metanexus, Madrid (to which we fly today…), apples, Aristotle, Jack Caputo, Joseph Kockelmans, W. Norris Clarke, Stanley Rosen, Steve Croddy, Jacques Derrida, Casablanca, Jimmie Rollins and Ryan Howard, fair-trade coffee, single-malt scotch, laughter, love, St. Joseph, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, translators of the Bible and the Koran and the Upanishads, dark chocolate, autumn leaves, Mozart, Bags and KitKat (and Lucky), and more or less everything that comes my way. And the fact that God smiles….
After lugging two big suitcases filled with books back from the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting (not to mention, especially to my wife, shipping back an additional big carton of books as well), I find this disheartening story on the harmful effects of the decline of reading. You can read (if you can read) the full report from the National Endowment for the Arts, To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence (.pdf). Dana Gioia, Chairman of the NEA, puts the matter:
To Read or Not To Read is not an elegy for the bygone days of print culture, but instead is a call to action – not only for parents, teachers, librarians, writers, and publishers, but also for politicians, business leaders, economists, and social activists. The general decline in reading is not merely a cultural issue, though it has enormous consequences for literature and the other arts. It is a serious national problem. If, at the current pace, America continues to lose the habit of regular reading, the nation will suffer substantial economic, social, and civic setbacks.
Synchronicity: today my mom tells me that she got an invitation to a holiday celebration that will feature “hours devours” followed by “desert.” Sorry I’m going to miss it.