Saturday, April 28, 2012

Learning To Run Too Early: Notes Toward A Medium Opus III

The worst thing that happened to me as a student as Wesley Theological Seminary was the "A" I received on my paper in my class in Systematic Theology. From the vantage point of two decades' remove, I can honestly say that few things could have been worse for me. Reading the paper, with its far too complimentary professorial annotation of "scholarly" on the front, I know I would create a far different paper now than I did then. I cannot judge the merit of the work too well, but the young man who produced it is all too clear to me now. A combination of personal and other circumstances had combined that long-ago autumn and early winter to make me perhaps one of the most insufferable, egotistical individuals around. Instead of an "A", I think Josiah would have been far better calling me in to his office, closing the door behind me, and saying, "What the hell's wrong with you?"

The assignment was simple enough. We were to write a "creed" then a defense of each article. The paper was supposed to be between 20 to 25 pages, pretty typical for that stage of our education. I began mine with several pages on the first two words in my own creedal statement, "I believe". I find it amusing that I would still do that, even after all these years; I would also say at least similar things regarding the equivocal status of "I" as well as the disputed status of "believe". What embarrasses me more than anything, however, as I read what I wrote so many years ago is the fact that the 26 year old man, so full of himself, so proud of all the things he knew, thinking he'd found his One True Love in life, had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Instead of an "A", I needed a boot, quite firm and hard, perhaps repeated, in my ass. I do hope the statute of limitations on apologies hasn't run out, because I am formally apologizing now to any and all who knew me at the time for being such an insufferable dick.

When I say I didn't understand what I was saying when I wrote about the questionableness of the notion of an "I" who has some independent status that granted it authority any should heed, I rested quite a bit of what I wrote on this thinker I'd encountered for the first time over the previous summer. A professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, Richard Rorty had published three short volumes that same year, two collections of essays covering the previous decade as well as a volume integrating his anti-epistemological views and pragmatist ethics, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity*. I distinctly remember not quite understanding what Rorty was trying to say, except in one particular essay that, in many ways, summarizes much of his philosophical project, at least regarding his views on human knowledge and understanding. Entitled "Texts and Lumps", the essay offers the curious and surprising view that the long argument between the natural sciences and humanities over which provides a better understanding of our world was, by and large, an argument over nothing at all. In defense of his position, Rorty drags along none other than Thomas Kuhn. Arguing that Kuhn's view of science renders scientific investigation no different from textual criticism, Rorty sees the two things as not just similar, but the same. Scientists have a lump of stuff on their lab table; they use a variety of tools to figure out what this lump is, how it works, all sorts of things about it. Literary critics and historians and other practitioners of the Geisteswissenchaften have a text in front of them. They have little idea what it might say; therefore they use a variety of tools to understand its subject, its vocabulary, to make sense of this odd thing in front of them. I took this intriguing idea and ran with it, not least because I had doubts going forward whether there was any merit to the theological project. 

Part of Rorty's point was scientists and those in the humanities too often make the category mistake that their unique, methodological approaches are the sole way not only of arriving at something others can call "Truth", but are generalizable beyond the specific cases in which they are employed. Instead, Rorty celebrates the diversity of approaches, while regarding them as qualitatively indistinct, as a way of instilling an ounce of humility in the various intellectual pursuits we human beings enjoy. In an odd way, this seemed to defend doing theology even if, as I was feeling at the time, it had little application even within the Church, let alone outside it. It would be a while before I realized that, right then and there at that moment in time, I shared something with one of the premiere American philosophers of the late 20th century because Richard Rorty had no idea what he talking about. Specifically, his reading of Kuhn is wrong on so many levels, it is almost unrecognizable. Sad to say, my appropriation of Rorty's thesis in "Texts and Lumps" was actually a more fair reading of him than was his reading of Kuhn.

It was three years before I read Kuhn and realized that Rorty was carrying ten pounds of crap in a two pound bag when he wrote about Kuhn. When I returned to Rorty a couple years later, I realized what Rorty's error was. Again, it was similar to my own that fall of 1991 when my head was so big I'm surprised I could make it through doorways: Rorty had misinterpreted Kuhn because he didn't understand him. It would be some time before I realized that summer and fall, and even in to the next spring semester, I was (to borrow a metaphor) fighting above my weight. It was one thing to discover all these wonderful new authors and books and dive in to what I had started to call, in the high spring of 1991, this very long conversation within the Church (another metaphor I still use). It was quite another to think I could join the conversation having learned a few words of this very rich vocabulary called "theology". Furthermore, in my ridiculous, pompous brain, that I could "get" some basic stuff in theology and doctrine meant I could "get" some not-so-basic stuff in related fields like philosophy. Surrounded by people who were encouraging (I am grateful for that), I started to believe some of what they were telling me, not the least being that I was a pretty intelligent guy. It wouldn't be too long before I was brought back down to earth with the rest of humanity (thank God), and realized that, smart or not, I needed to learn to crawl, then stand, then walk, before I thought I could run with some pretty big dogs. That fall of 1991, I thought I was ready for a marathon. In fact, I was barely on my feet, holding on to whatever might be available to keep me from landing on my ass. It is cold comfort to me that I had some good company in not knowing what the hell I was talking about in no less than Richard Rorty.

*In 2007, I read all the Rorty works I own, from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature through Philosophy and Social Hope and wrote three posts that are far better summations of his thought than anything I wrote in those dim, dark days after first encountering him. If you care, check them out.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Be Very Afraid

Nearing the end of Christian Believer, we are entering the realm of the last things. The lesson plan for Christian Hope, like much of the rest of the course, was uneven. It seemed to lack focus. Yesterday afternoon, I talked with Lisa about my concerns. Lucking out, the video presentation, from Dr. Will Coleman, was excellent. My prior decision to concentrate solely on the series of questions at the end of the Study Guide for the week paid off.

 Since it's eschatology, a major topic is death. One of those questions we considered was our possible experience of those who had faced their own deaths in and with faith, and how that might have impacted us. One member of the class is a cancer survivor, and offered eloquent testimony on how her faith allowed her to deal thoughtfully and honestly with the very real possibility that she might well die.

It has long been my fervent belief that far too many Christians are scared of dying. The eventuality of our own demise becomes a matter of increasing concern as we get older. We begin to lose loved ones. Then, older friends or people who had been important in our lives are gone. Then, reaching middle age, Our peers might die, leaving us trembling not only in grief at our loss, but in the fear that death is no respecter of age or persons. All the same, we who confess faith in a crucified and risen savior should regard that only universal human experience (beyond birth, of course) without any fear or trembling. The grave should have no hold over us as we rejoice that this life, for all its joys and sorrows, is only part of our experience in and with the God who has defeated death.

Not fearing dying, however, does not mean we should not fear death. I want to make a clear distinction here. As I'm using them here (and as I understand them), dying is a physical process through which our bodies move until, at some point, they cease to function. Death, on the other hand, is the emotional experience shared by those who have lost a loved one. For many people, the most grievous experience of death is the loss of a parent. Some, alas, lose siblings. I know a surprising number of people who have lost children. Then there are dear friends, some who die in sad circumstances, others because of illness (either physical or some other kind). As I said last night, while we Christians shouldn't be afraid of dying, we should both fear and respect death, because death is a monster.

If we aren't careful, death can devour people, whole families even. It can destroy marriages and relationships. It can enter homes and never leave, making ever-present not the life that was loved so dearly, but the lifeless corpse that mocks our love, knows nothing of our pain and sorrow. Death can even take over whole communities, even nations. Consider the Tulsa race riot of the 1920's here in the United States, the madness in Kampuchea during the 1970's, or Bosnia in the 1990's. This was death stalking lands, casting its pall as far and wide as possible. When the Bible says that the wage of sin is death, I firmly believe this is the referent. Not our physical ending, which is both inevitable and little more than our time coming to an end. Death, as I understand it and have tried to describe it here, is this creature that robs our lives of light and joy. It is a creature that demands sacrifice, always hungry, always looking to feed on our desire for it to hear our plea to return to us those we have loved and lost. Its promises are false, its joy in our sorrow and despair creating a never-ending cycle that, if we aren't careful, will swallow us up, leaving us physically alive yet dead in all the other ways that count.

We Christians are not to fear dying; death, however, we should understand as something else entirely. It is a beast that, if we aren't careful, will carry us off before our time. We should never dismiss the pain and grief and loss dying brings; these are the cracked doors and windows through which death enters our lives. The only effective defense is being with those who are experiencing loss. Not saying anything, not doing anything other than reminding them that, in their pain, they are neither forgotten nor alone. This is the fortress that death cannot destroy. This is power of love that is stronger than death. Rooted in the love we have from God in the risen Christ, we can face death together, without fear perhaps, but certainly always respecting its neverending demand to make its way in to our lives and destroy them.

A Pair Of Dimes: Notes Toward A Medium Opus II

If you wanted a BA in political science at Alfred University in the 1980's, the road led through Robert Heinemann's course on political philosophy. Introducing an abundance of names - Machiavelli, of course, and Hegel and Marx, but also Thorstein Veblen and Michel Montaigne, as well as Bob's favorite, Edmund Burke - the course assignment was an amazing research project. Students were to choose a thinker, not necessarily one studied in the class, and write a three-part paper. Each part was to be ten pages. The first part was to be the historical background and setting. Bob wasn't too pleased with my decision to treat Mein Kampf as a serious work of political thought; my argument, which he accepted, was that it formed the basis for the most important political movement of the first half of the 20th century, and deserved to be taken seriously. Thus I found myself, near the mid-point of the semester, on the verge of a nervous breakdown* and having nearly forgotten the reason why I had to spend a month studying the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the mystical nationalism of Heinrich von Treitschke. Bob had insisted we needed to understand political thought in its historical setting because of some guy named Kuhn who wrote about a pair of dimes. At least, that's what I heard.

 Of the many mistaken applications of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Bob's has a special place in my heart. Who could blame him for thinking that Kuhn's description of the way scientific thinking changes has applications far beyond what Kuhn wrote? The "pair of dimes" that I kept hearing about, actually paradigms, are one of those marvelous philosophical terms that practically beg readers to find in them something special and important. Like Immanuel Kant's Thing-in-Itself, Hegel's World Spirit, and Montaigne's ideas on Law, Kuhn never quite gets around to defining what a paradigm might be; he points to the edges and limits of it, discussing everything from Gestalt psychology to the changing nature of language without ever landing on his target. This lack of definitional clarity, however, doesn't render the word itself meaningless. It does, alas, allow others to borrow the word and use it in ways for which it is, to say the least, ill-suited.

 Six years later, I took a course on Religion and Science at Wesley Theological Seminary. Taught by the late Roy Morrison, the class included in its reading list Gerald Holton's The Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought. Holton, like Kuhn a physicist as well as historian of science, offers a variation on Kuhn's theses regarding "normal science", "revolutionary science", and "paradigms". The book's main virtues, for me, were two-fold. There is a long chapter describing the Michelson-Morley experiments, the only I'd read up to that time, that include the not-unimportant observation that, rather than failing to find the so-called luminiferous ether, they were in fact, merely equivocal on the subject, with some experimental results landing squarely within acceptable parameters. The other virtue the book offered was name-dropping T. S. Kuhn. 

Working at the seminary bookstore, I had retained, even with the many changes of managers and supervisors, the ability to order books on my own without prior approval. Thus, I ordered Kuhn's major work as well as an earlier one, The Copernican Revolution. With all the other things I had to read, I set the books on my shelf, promising myself I would get to them. Someday. Someday was two years later.

 Lisa was ordained in 1994, and we moved to Jarratt, VA. As that first summer after our move neared its end, I had just finished my borrowed copy of Dreadnought and decided, more on a whim than anything, to pick up Kuhn's book on Copernicus. In hindsight, reading his work in chronological order helped me understand Kuhn's thought on the growth and change in scientific thought far more clearly than had I just read the latter book. Several things in Kuhn's book leaped off the page at me. First, the traditional view that astronomy was some undeveloped science was, historically speaking, nonsense. Indeed, Copernicus's "breakthrough" was little more than what the German's call a gedankenexperiment, fully embedded within a far more traditional, highly mathematical treatment of the motion of the planets. Later on in the work, discussing Galileo, Kuhn notes that Galileo's insistence that he was seeing satellites around the planets, as well as more stars, had little to nothing to support it. The theory of optics his opponents had at their disposal was time-tested, and on it the very telescope Galileo was using had been constructed. That Galileo was to proved correct is more a historical accident, in Kuhn's view, than any claim that Galileo had in fact discovered some "truth" about the way the Universe worked.

Reading this latter passage, I remembered something I'd read years before. I went to the book shelves and found my valued copy of National Geographic. I flipped to the page in the story discussing the Shepherd Moons and the way they seemed to violate our understanding of celestial mechanics. A piece - not the first, but an important one - in the puzzle I first thought I could assemble when I'd first read that magazine article landed squarely in my lap. There was something here, something about science, what it does, how it works, what we thought it was, how we thought about what science does. It took me a while to see the exact shape of the piece. After finishing both of Kuhn's books, I picked up another one of those science books I'd ordered for myself, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. Right there, in the opening, dueling essays of Kuhn and someone named Karl Popper, the piece became clear. Language. There was something about language and meaning that was important, that linked all these weird, disparate things like the history of science and political philosophy and the Shepherd Moons and their odd dance around Saturn.  Pieces were starting to fall in to place, it seemed, but connecting more disparate parts would mean studying this stuff about science and language on its own terms.  So, I thought, why not go back to school and study philosophy of science?

*Some friends staged a bit of an intervention after a publicly embarrassing display I made in the Dining Hall one Friday afternoon. The deep immersion in to the depths of the darkness of the life and work of Adolf Hitler certainly took its toll on my fragile psyche; what twenty-year-old can really grasp the cruelty and evil, from the personal to the social level, in Germany during those twelve years? I am embarrassed by my behavior, and hereby, 26 years later, apologize.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Whoom Bop A Mau-Mau

I am so looking forward to hearing more like this.
Well, it won’t bother them; we know that. It certainly won’t bother Barack Obama. Matthew Owens doesn’t look like his son, and there are no votes to be had. For Obama, if it doesn’t help his re-election campaign, it doesn’t exist. Whether he likes it or not, however, I think incidents like this one, which have multiplied all across America, will hurt Obama in the fall. Millions of Americans voted for Obama in part because they thought his election would put racial division to rest, or at least contribute to that goal. But the opposite has happened. Obama has been an extraordinarily divisive president; neither he nor others in his administration, like Eric Holder, have ever hesitated to foment race hatred when they thought it would serve the Democrats’ political interests. As it turned out, Obama’s election represented a setback for race relations in the United States, an outcome that virtually no one foresaw.
Because, you know, equivalence.
“This here is an incident stemming from an ongoing dispute between neighbors,” Levy said. “We spend a lot of time defusing neighborhood disputes, neighbors who don’t get along. ... That’s what this is. And unfortunately, this can lead to violence.”
Tucker expressed a similar sentiment. “That’s an important fact that needs to get out to the public. This was not some random event that came out of nowhere.”
Neighbors have said a large group of black people confronted Owens at about 8:30 p.m. near his home on Delmar Drive. Levy said many people appear to have been present, but he said most merely watched and did not participate in the violence.
He said Owens had a dispute with neighborhood children who were playing basketball on the street. They told their parents, who were having a large get-together with friends.
“Really, the party just kind of moved down there,” Levy said.
It was not the first time violence erupted between Rawls and Owens. Levy said the 2 traded racist epithets in July 2009 and that Rawls assaulted Owens. While a witness initially told police that Rawls had used a baseball bat, Levy said the suspect denied that, insisting he had only used his hands. The witness later said he could not be sure a bat was used, Levy said.
Remember that song from childhood, "One of these things is not like the other?"

The stupid and hate will combine to create a frothy mixture that might well drown us all. Let the idiotic comments begin!

Connections: Notes For A Medium Opus I

Does anyone remember this program?

The show offered the marvelous thought that the lines we draw in our understanding of how the world is and works are not at all straight; indeed, the curves and intersections create a tapestry that cannot be unwound. Tracing the lines can be daunting, yet also marvelously surprising in how they lead us so far afield from whence we began.

What follows in this and subsequent posts in this series are some thoughts and reflections on the way I have worked to make connections among disparate parts of human experience, trying to understand how they weave together the marvel of human existence. While certainly worthy of study for its own sake, my own goal has always been understanding toward a particular goal: a life together worth living, in which all human beings are free, equal, treated with dignity and respect, and work together for keeping our whole world a better, decent, safe place for us to live.

This journey of mine began on a summer afternoon in 1982. Like many such journeys, it began not because I had decided to set off on it; it started, rather, because I was bored. Ramming around my empty house, I found a year-old National Geographic magazine. I probably picked it up because the cover photo of Saturn was interesting. I flipped to the story and the very first page offered a piece of information that troubled me. On a two-page photo of Saturn taken from Voyager 1 as it sped up and away from the planet after flying past it and its many moons, came the fact that Saturn was a billion kilometers from Earth.

I had no idea what that meant.

Not that I didn't know what a kilometer was. Nor was I ignorant of the figure "one billion". Put together this way, however, offered something that, in my young life, I had never experienced: I couldn't understand what those words, put together the way they were, referenced. What was "one billion kilometers"? The small city of Binghamton was forty miles from Waverly; that seemed a very long way away. My oldest sister and her husband lived in Rochester, which might as well be near Saturn somewhere. My mother's family, and my cousins on that side of the family, were in Dayton, OH, which seemed as odd and foreign a thing to consider as saying they lived in Bangladesh.

How could I understand "one billion kilometers" in any way that rendered it intelligible? I would spend quite a bit of free time over ensuing days and weeks reading and re-reading that cover story on Voyager 1's Saturn fly-by. From the discovery of the so-called Shepherd Moons - I've never forgotten one mission specialist's comment that their behavior violated the laws of celestial mechanics but, and I quote, "they seem to know what they're doing" - to the first photo of the Saturnian moon Mimas, with its mammoth crater that caused one person, seeing it for the first time, to shout, "That's no moon, that's a space station!".
After absorbing as much of the article as I could, I was left with something that, in hindsight, I can name easily enough: wonder. From realizing I couldn't really understand what was meant by the expression "one billion kilometers" to the idea that there were these weird little moons out there that had no idea what we human beings thought they should be doing to the sheer variety and beauty of the whole, it was an aesthetic experience unlike anything I'd ever had. More than anything, I lacked any vocabulary to describe the event, my feelings, or what I was thinking. Looking back, I find it even more troubling that I wasn't even aware I didn't have such a vocabulary, or that there was such a thing as multiple vocabularies that serve a variety of purposes. All I knew for sure was several seeds were planted across several summer days just before my senior year in high school that continue to push me forward.

In retrospect, I can see more clearly what was happening. At its most basic, I was trying to find a connection between this story of Voyager's encounter with Saturn and my own life and what was, I was coming to understand, my paltry grasp of the enormity of the Universe in which we live. Sure, there was something awesome about the whole thing, the pictures were beautiful and strange, and the information was changing the way we understood things worked. But what does it mean? More specifically, how can I take this information and make it relevant to my life?

These questions have kept me from ever resting comfortably with my understanding of the world. While I hope I've learned how to phrase them more accurately, these questions keep me curious and interested in the many things in our universe. They have pushed me to study a variety of matters, from language to science to politics to history to sociology, in order to figure out if they are pieces of a larger puzzle, or just random bits of stuff without any inherent connection to anything else. Along the way I've learned a thing or two, I hope I've gained the words to express what I think, to ask the questions that need asking in the way they need to be asked. Most of all, that basic sense of awe I felt that long-ago summer has not waned. The Universe we human beings inhabit is an enormous, strange, dangerous place, filled with things we cannot imagine, sometimes things that have no idea that we claim to understand them, instead going about their business without a thought to our insistent declaration that we understand the way things work.

The rest of the posts in this series will describe how I made the connections among the many questions that flowed from those first, most basic ones that were birthed in the awe at the beauty and strangeness of some pictures of a place very far away. I've made some of the connections, I would like to think; others remain elusive, which is why I keep going, trying to figure stuff out. I've also come to some conclusions that inform my way of beginning to understand the world, what I might call, for lack of a better word, axioms that I cheerfully understand could be wrong, but are necessary for getting on with.

Two notes on the whole Saturn thing. This post, and the ones that follow, were sparked by a story at the BBC about the Cassini Spacecraft and its orbital mission around Saturn. The story references the discovery of geysers on the moon Enceladus. The few photos from V-1 were blurry, taken from a great distance, and revealed little except that the place seemed incredibly smooth. It was well known that the moon was made up of water ice. Its location in orbit seemed to offer the intriguing possibility that gravitational pressure might keep it geologically active, thus refreshing the surface with water flows from beneath the miles-deep crust of ice. Sure enough, in sillouhette against the light from its parent planet, were enormous water geysers. I read the article, and it reminded me how much of what I continue to do to this day began with that long-ago article in National Geographic.

In the winter of 1991, a lady friend and I were at an antique shop in rural Maryland, somewhere between Baltimore and Washington. We weren't really all that interested in buying, but window shopping at antique shops is great fun. I was perusing a shelf holding some books and old magazines when something caught my attention. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Buried in a stack of other old copies of National Geographic was a copy of that very same issue - Volume 160, Number 1, from July, 1981 - for sale for a dime. I couldn't tell my lady friend why I had to have that particular magazine. There was no way I could make her understand how important this silly thing was to me. I think she understood my excitement; I remember a comment she made about the expression on my face. I held that magazine tight, dropped dime in the kitty, and, through the twists and turns and many moves to disparate places, it is still with me. In fact, it's sitting next to my laptop on my desk, the cover photo staring back at me as I type this. I've come a very long way since I first encountered the story and pictures and the questions it forced upon me; all the same, I am amazed at how beautiful that cover photo is, how strange. I am glad to have this particular magazine at hand to remind me that every story has a beginning, and the my own story started right here.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Would You Want To See Your Pastor In A Speedo?

I've been attending various clergy gatherings for decades. Such events are enjoyable, despite my own reticence in large groups to do more than hang back and people-watch. One thing I've learned over the years is clergy come in every shape, color, gender, size, and attitude. All the same, the stereotype - at least among we people called Methodists - of the older, bearded, white guy who has grown hefty on all the church dinners we serve, is still present. While on the wane, there are still many who fit the picture in our heads of the local pastor as precisely that: older, white, and fat. The variety and diversity of who are clergy are has not quite erased that image.

I got to thinking of that tableau when I read this article from the New York Times.
But somehow, despite our belief that both sexes can serve the church, it seems there’s still something unnerving about a priest who is a woman. It has to do with having a woman’s body.

A parishioner told me that he thought I was a great priest, but that if I became pregnant, it would be too weird for him to see me at the altar. Merely holding hands with my husband, even when I am not in clerical clothes, has elicited the comment “Can you do that? I mean, in public?” Another parishioner told me I was too petite to be a priest. I’m 5-10. I have never been called “petite.” I think he meant “female.”

What about when a priest wears a bikini? What if she complicates the picture by having sizable biceps or well-defined lats? Can “buff” and “holy” go together? “Ripped” and “reverend”? If the “reverend” is a woman?
Demonstrating the kind of discipline and self-care necessary to compete, even at an amateur level, in body building is something to celebrate. Were the clergy in question male, there would be little to no discussion of the appropriateness of him doing so. Would a man have the kind of guilt-laden thoughts Rev. Dr. Richter had as she thought about what she was about to do?

We seem to have little problems picturing our clergy as men doing all the things men do. Including, it seems, putting on weight. Women clergy face so many hurdles, not least the pressure to desexualize themselves (Rev. Dr. Richter's report of a parishioner's comment about how his feelings toward her possibly becoming pregnant is so familiar) as well as strip themselves of culturally-defined womanhood (except, of course, motherhood, housekeeping, and being supportive of her husband's life and career; even with women clergy a commonplace, there is still an assumption among many, both in local congregations and the hierarchy, that she will subsume her own career desires to her husband's), even the thought of discomfort caused by the desire to body-build should be evidence enough that we have a long way to go in our thinking about what it means to be clergy. Enforcing a series of behavioral and physiognomical norms upon clergy rooted in social and cultural reification of maleness is an on-going issue for so many in the church, even generations removed from the first female ordinations. Rev. Dr. Richter deserves all our support and gratitude for demonstrating that a ripped, bikini-clad priest is still a priest.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More