Archive for category Wholeness

Time in a Nutshell

Get some perspective!

(hat-tip to student Ryan B.!)

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Karl Barth’s Failure by Matthew Rose | Articles | First Things

 But we are living through the unraveling of the Christian metaphysic, which began with a rejection of classical theism, proceeded to abolish purpose from the material world, and is now eliminating the rational and moral nature of man. In order to recognize this metaphysical demolition for what it is—one can scarcely repair what one misunderstands—Christians are no more helped by Barth than by theological liberalism. Both collude with secular reason in denying our capacity to attain knowledge of the highest things. We will be immeasurably better served by recognizing, as John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio, that our “crisis of meaning” stems from failing to defend the ability of reason to know “the ultimate and overarching meaning of life.”

Read more from this thoughtful essay on Barth: Karl Barth’s Failure by Matthew Rose | Articles | First Things.

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With the Whole of the Everyday

Lectio Divina: A thought (or two) for the day (and everyday):

God can be beheld in each thing and reached through each pure deed. But this insight is by no means to be equated with a pantheistic world view, as some have thought. …[T]he whole world is only a word out of the mouth of God. Nonetheless, the least thing in the world is worthy that through it God should reveal Himself to the person who truly seeks Him; for no thing can exist without a divine spark, and each person can uncover and redeem this spark at each time and through each action, even the most ordinary, if only he or she performs it in purity, wholly directed to God and concentrated in Him. Therefore, it will not do to serve God only in isolated hours and with set words and gestures. One must serve God with one’s whole life, with the whole of the everyday, with the whole of reality. The salvation of man does not lie in his holding himself far removed from the worldly, but in consecrating it to holy, to divine meaning: his work and his food, his rest and his wandering, the structure of the family and the structure of society. It lies in his preserving the great love of God for all creatures, yes, for all things.

[From Martin Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man, (1958, 1988) 41-42; slightly edited.]

Gloss in the form of a question: What is meant by “purity”?

Martin Buber

Martin Buber

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The Globalization of Superficiality

Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., Superior General of the Society of Jesus, on what he calls the “globalization of superficiality”:

When one can access so much information so quickly and so painlessly; when one can express and publish to the world one’s reactions so immediately and so unthinkingly in one’s blogs or micro-blogs; when the latest opinion column from the New York Times or El Pais, or the new- est viral video can be spread so quickly to people half a world away, shaping their perceptions and feelings, then the laborious, painstaking work of serious, critical thinking often gets short-circuited.

One can “cut-and-paste” without the need to think critically or write accurately or come to one’s own careful conclusions. When beautiful images from the merchants of consumer dreams flood one’s computer screens, or when the ugly or unpleasant sounds of the world can be shut out by one’s MP3 music player, then one’s vision, one’s perception of reality, one’s desiring can also remain shallow. When one can become “friends” so quickly and so painlessly with mere acquaintances or total strangers on one’s social networks – and if one can so easily “unfriend” another without the hard work of encounter or, if need be, confrontation and then reconciliation – then relationships can also become superficial.

When one is overwhelmed with such a dizzying pluralism of choices and values and beliefs and visions of life, then one can so easily slip into the lazy superficiality of relativism or mere tolerance of others and their views, rather than engaging in the hard work of forming communities of dialogue in the search of truth and understanding. It is easier to do as one is told than to study, to pray, to risk, or to discern a choice.

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David Christian – Big History

The story of everything…in 18 minutes.
[You may want to watch this here instead of below, as the video controller does not seem to be working. Below, once you start, you can only stop it by reloading the page (at least in my browser…).]

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In Praise of the Useless University

Martha Nussbaum, among many others (including almost everyone who writes college catalog entries for humanities departments) argues that the liberal arts are good for business and democracy.  The humanities teach us critical thinking skills and help form in us an “enlarged mind” that is useful for becoming successful in the world of commerce and politics.

But should we proponents of the humanities be making our case in this way?

According to Fencing Bear at Prayer, here’s the case for the humanities:  There isn’t one.

Why study the humanities? Not because they will make us better citizens. Not because they will make our lives physically more comfortable or enable us to build better engines or cure cancer. But because one of the things that human beings do is reflect on what it means to be a human being and to wonder at the many forms of expression this reflection has taken. That’s it. Take this reflection away and we might as well be robots. Or beasts. Comfortable, well-built robots or healthy beasts, to be sure, but no longer ourselves. Not human.

Rufus F. at the League of Ordinary Gentleman insists we stop selling the humanities for all of the other things they are “good for” and remember that liberal learning is a good in itself, however “useless.”

The humanities are rooted in the study of texts, which will increasingly put them at odds with a society in which reading is becoming vestigial. People who grow up detached from any cultural/historical context will find academics increasingly alien, if not offensive to their sensibilities. Attacks on the humanities will increase. The way to address them isn’t to trick the public into thinking they’re getting something else for their money, but to repeatedly defend the right of academics to hang back from the passions of the day- to be less-than-useful for whatever desires the society wants satisfied today. That means, by the way, academics in the humanities must drop altogether the pretense of political “activism” and, in their public role, become much more explicitly apoliticaland inactivist; conversely, they need to start expressing quite loudly the worth of this eternal hanging back, instead of flattering and placating a culture that is arguably no culture.

Matthew J. Milliner’s piece, “Useless University,” reminds us that John Henry Newman held that truth has two attributes, beauty and power.  The power of truth is expressed in useful knowledge, the knowledge and skills required for business, technology, and government, in short the knowledge useful for getting a job.  In the liberal arts, on the other hand, the beauty of truth can be discovered and contemplated for its own sake.  Such contemplation is an end in itself, pursued just because we can.  Milliner draws the conclusion:

If Newman is right, then to justify the liberal arts, which would now include what we call the humanities, as instrumentally useful, is also to betray them….

Of course, we all have to eat.  Which means most of us have to have jobs.  But do all of us have to have jobs that preclude our having the leisure for contemplating the beauty of being, of the cosmos, of truth?  Here’s an idea (from Toby Ord): live like a graduate student…forever!

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In praise of uselessness…

A student and I were chatting for a few moments after class on Friday.  She told me that she enjoys our class because she gets “to think about and discuss some important things,” things that don’t seem to come up over there in the business school where she pursues her major.  She wondered whether she should consider changing her major from something she doesn’t like (business) to something she does (seem to) like (philosophy).

Now, I sharpened up this brief conversation to make a point:  this is the moment that any honest and self-aware philosophy professor dreads more than any other.  What do I say next?

Do I go on and on about how the humanities are not respected in academia (despite the lip-service paid them), about the miserable job prospects for one who wants to pursue humane learning in a professional capacity, about the viciousness of campus politics (because, as they say, so little is at stake), that academia seems to breed negativity, etc.?  Who’d recommend to a young person that way of life?  And do I say that the humanities are just something we do for a while, now, while we (at least you) are young, that getting a job is the main thing because so much else in our lives hangs on our economic circumstances, about how the humanities are seemingly useless to living in a consumer society such as ours, about how just because we do not enjoy something does not mean it is not good for us—I teach (about) Aristotelian virtue, after all—etc.?

On the other hand, how do I tamp down the obvious enthusiasm—even love—that I have for philosophy and for what I do with my life?  The students can’t miss it.  And they want that or something like that.  It doesn’t have to be academic philosophy, but they want something that will produce the effusive joy in living and doing in them that they see coming from me.  They know I’m not doing it for the money (Lord knows).  They know I had a career in business that brought in a very nice income.  They know I got to see a little of the world—maybe more than most do.  But they see that, after all, here I am.

And they see that how I experience the philosophical life generates a joy in me that is akin to the joy someone else might find in stamp collecting or ice hockey or cooking—but that it’s also more than that.  The philosophical life is about life itself, about us, even all about me in a non-superficial, non-egocentric sense.  Students in college (and even—maybe especially—the “non-traditional” students, the returning adults) are at a point in their lives where it seems to be “all about me”—again, not just in some superficial, selfish sense.  In fact, you might say that the superficial, selfish manifestations of “all about me” arise just because there is no authentic arena for thinking about, wondering about, imagining what “me” means for most of these students.  When students find such a space, they gravitate towards it.

And yet, the self-aware, honest philosopher would have to ask: This “joy” you’re referring to—is it genuine?  Is it coming from pursuing philosophy itself (if it has an “itself”)?  Or does it come from being in charge in the classroom, from being on stage, raptly attended to (if you are any good at performing), from being the know-it-all in the room, from not having to meet payroll anymore, or deal with neurotic funders or board members or troublesome employees, or the bottom line?  Is philosophy, for me, “all about me,” in a superficial sense?  And am I in any way encouraging the same quest for selfish ego-gratification in others, in perhaps impressionable young people?

Just asking oneself these questions is—inescapably—philosophical, an occupational hazard of the philosophical life, the price to be paid for a joyous pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  It’s all in the game.  And the answer is:  Sure, it’s selfish.  But it is not only selfish.  When my students drive away in better cars, I know it is not only selfish.  What I do is fun, but it is also serious.  It is to me, and it is to the students around me.  I should really say fellow-students, because (selfishly, yes!) I am still learning, yearning for learning.  I know that I do not know.

Knowing computer programming, accounting, or animal husbandry is useful.  Not knowing is useless.  Constantly examining one’s life is useless.  Philosophy is useless.  It gets in the way of the useful, upends efficiency and effectiveness, makes trouble where no one noticed anything troubling.

I think this truth about philosophy infects academic philosophy.  I would be willing to bet that most departments might frown upon taking philosophy personally—or at least worry over when it gets “too personal,” as if it is not really about persons, teacher-persons and student-persons.  Departments, I would imagine, tend to worry about confusing eros with philia.  It is a fair concern.  If philosophy is personal—about persons—then some sense of intimacy might develop.  And then, call the lawyers!  It wouldn’t be useful to make education be so personal—not just for these reasons, but also because we’ve made education all about certification.  We have tests and grades and such in order to be able to certify.  So a “good” philosophy student is one who knows about philosophy—which one might be even if one is not a philosopher—does well by knowing names and dates, how to define terms, the stock arguments, who influenced whom, etc.  Making philosophy to be knowing-about-philosophy is very useful for academic philosophy because you can assess it.  If you teach virtue ethics, for instance, you could ask questions about Aristotle and Alasdair MacIntyre.  But you could never follow a student around the rest of her life trying to assess how virtuous in living she’s become.  That’d be creepy.

Knowing about philosophy might be useful outside the academy…it is hard to see how, though.  What would you do…open up your own little philosophy shop?  I guess you could engage in interesting cocktail party conversation.  You could win big on Jeopardy!, I suppose, being able to ring in fast with, “Who was Descartes?”  But it won’t come up on a regular basis in corporate headquarters.

I could try to re-describe philosophy—academic philosophy—in terms that make it appear as if it were useful.  In academic philosophy, you learn the art of careful, close reading; argumentation; debate; critical thinking; seeing the “big picture;” etc.  All these are eminently useful skills to develop.  My students know, for instance, that a big part of the reason I made a buck or two in the business world was simply because I developed these skills.  I never had business, information technology, or manufacturing courses, but I ended up having a bunch of people who did have these courses work for me.  It would be impossible for me to argue that philosophy—at least academic philosophy—has been useless to me.

But all of that makes up the form of academic philosophy, not the content.  You should be learning all of those skills across the liberal arts curriculum.  But for me, the content—what philosophy is all about—matters.  It would be better if conversations about Aristotle, Kant, and Mill came up on board rooms and shop floors as much as in lecture halls.  But they usually don’t.  So, for many reasons, philosophy happens intensely only on college and university campuses (if it does at all).

Speaking of Aristotle, he defines happiness as an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.  Happiness is not a feeling or emotion, but an activity, an actualization, a way of being, a state once achieved that is permanent.  Aristotle says we do all things for the sake of happiness.  What this means is that everything we do we do because it at least seems useful to us for getting what we ultimately want:  happiness.  But this means that happiness—in the sense Aristotle means it—is useless.  It is not for the sake of anything.  There is no “in order to” that follows happiness.  On the contrary, everything else is “in order to” be happy.

If happiness—again, not to be confused with mere pleasure, although it includes it—is what we want, then what we want is, itself, useless.  What students see in me—someone taking joy from the ultimately useless, i.e., someone pursuing genuine happiness, someone working on being happy—is just exactly what they are looking for.  I don’t mean me, that it is peculiar or specific to me.  There is no cult of personality going on here.  I mean they see something in me and what I’m doing that goes way beyond me, that, in fact, makes them forget all about me (in both senses of that—forget about EW and forget about their own superficial “all about me” attitude) and start to be able to grasp who they are and what happiness means to them.  And they start to question whether “getting a job”—the most useful thing in the world—will mean happiness for them.

But—again—the problem for me, their teacher and somewhat reluctant advisor—is what to say to them about all this.  If I say the most important things are the most useless things (i.e., they are goods in themselves, regardless of whether they are useful for anything else), I don’t want them to think there is nothing useful for getting to the “useless.”  Aristotle would be emphatic about this.  There are many things that are useful for getting to happiness (even as they should not be confused with being “happiness” itself).  But if I emphasize just how important the useful things are (like accounting and computer programming, engineering and law, architecture and culinary arts), I don’t want them to think that we’re just wasting time, then, on this useless philosophy stuff.

So my student friend was wondering, in effect: Should I trade useful for useless?

Now what kind of advisor would I be if I simply were to say:  Yes, go for it!?  Part of me thinks I ought to be sued for nonsupport were I to do so.

My academic advisor answer is:  “You know, philosophy is a great minor.  Goes great with business management.”

It’s a useful response.  Still, I want to give them something a little more useless because, well, useless is more….


(from the archive: originally appeared October 4, 2009)


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