Thursday, January 28, 2010

An Argument from Beauty, Against Abortion

This is a profoundly axiological (aesthetic) argument:
Such studies are few. In general, abortion providers have censored their own emotional trauma out of concern to protect abortion rights. In 2008, however, abortionist Lisa Harris endeavored to begin “breaking the silence” in the pages of the journal Reproductive Health Matters. When she herself was 18 weeks pregnant, Dr. Harris performed a D&E abortion on an 18-week-old fetus. Harris felt her own child kick precisely at the moment that she ripped a fetal leg off with her forceps:

Instantly, tears were streaming from my eyes—without me—meaning my conscious brain—even being aware of what was going on. I felt as if my response had come entirely from my body, bypassing my usual cognitive processing completely. A message seemed to travel from my hand and my uterus to my tear ducts. It was an overwhelming feeling—a brutally visceral response—heartfelt and unmediated by my training or my feminist pro-choice politics. It was one of the more raw moments in my life.

Mugged by Ultrasound

Atheist pwns liberal Christian

[Unitarian] The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I'm a liberal Christian, and I don't take the stories from the scripture literally. I don't believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

[Hitchens]: I would say that if you don't believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you're really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Read Rod Dreher's whole post

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The "God-shaped vacuum"

Doug Gruthius:
Philosopher and scientist, Blaise Pascal, is often cited as speaking of "the God-shaped vacuum" in everyone. I have been asked a few times where exactly he wrote that. To my knowledge, he never did; it is a paraphrase of this from Pensées:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself (Penguin ed., 148/428).

Monday, January 25, 2010

Holding Action

Letters, be the memory of this moment,
Ruth’s 3-legged Golden Lab
sniffing for news beneath the hedge,
grass glittering with rain,
the bird feeder mangled by our car.
Years from now I want to remember
how we walked the splendid earth
and saw it. When children read this
and smile at its old fashioned vision,
then words, stubborn little boxcars
lugging meaning across the rickety
wood bridge to the future, hold,
hold. Couple against time, bear
the red geranium, the slender birch—
you, sentences--glitter against
the massive dark of nothing. Tell
of feet that buffed this doorsill
till it gleams, of cartwheeling
children. Remember the Rosetta
stone, the hum of Xerox machines,
remember monks copying, how
a prisoner in solitary picked up
a pebble to scribble stories
on the wall. Letters, I tell you,
even if your paper yellows in the attic,
even if it’s torn and thrown into the sea,
each of you separate from your brothers,
swim through the ocean, row across
the sky, walk through the wasteland,
find a reader. Stay together. Hold.

- Jeanne Murray Walker

Friday, January 22, 2010

New Directions in Pooh Studies

Überlieferungs- und religionsgeschichtliche Studien
zum Pu-Buch: Great read

Monday, January 18, 2010

Quotable: Plato

"I do not know, men of Athens, how my accusers affected you; as for me, I was almost carried away in spite of myself, so persuasively did they speak. And yet, hardly anything of what they said is true."
- Plato, Apology

The Beauty of the Infinite, Hart

An interesting start:
A certain current within contemporary philosophy, however, asserts that violence is -- simply enough -- inescapable: wherever Nietzsche's narrative of the will to power has been absorbed into the grammar of philosophical reflection, and given rise to a particular practice of critical suspicion, a profound prejudice has taken root to the effect that every discourse is reducible to a strategy of power, and every rhetorical transaction to an instance of an original violence. From this vantage a rhetoric of peace is, by definition, duplicity; subjected to a thorough critique, genealogy, or deconstruction, evangelical rhetoric can undoubtedly be shown to conceal within itself the most insatiable appetite for control; the gesture by which the church offers Christ to the world, and bears witness to God's love for creation, is in reality an aggression, the ingratiating embassy of an omnivorous empire. Of course, if power's pathos were indeed the hidden wellspring of every act of persuasion, Christianity, as it conceives of itself, would be an impossible presence within history: the church as the earnest of the 'peaceable kingdom' could never communicate itself in a way that would not contradict its own evangel, and the 'city of peace' that the church tries (or at any rate claims) to be could never actually take shape, except mendaciously, as a dissimulation of power's arcane operations behind an apparent renunciation of power (such, at least, is Nietzsche's accusation in The Genealogy of Morals)."

David Bentley Hart, pg. 2

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Quotable: Rosenbaum

Higher stubbornness? I'd recast the impulse behind it this way: No, dammit, whatever I decide about the relationship to between God and evil, between God and Jewish suffering, however unsatisfied I might be by other attempts to explain it, however much I might resent God's apparent silence or absence in the death camps, however much I reject the notion of some 'larger plan' in which God required the murder of millions of children to accomplish some inscrutable end, however much I reject all the consolations and rationalizations of theodicy's attempt to explain Hitler, I refuse to allow Hitler the power, refuse to allow Hitler to be the catalyst, the defining issue over which I will reject the God my ancestors have lived with and died for, for better or worse, for three thousand years. Reject God for any other reason, for nonexistence, for silence, for death, but not for Hitler, don't give Hitler that power, that posthumous victory."

quote concerning Fackenheim's belief in God, by Ron Rosenbaum in Explaining Hitler

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Psalm 27

4 One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.

Ps 27

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The High Cost of Ignoring Beauty

Americans are used to building regulations that enforce utilitarian standards: insulation, smoke alarms, electrical safety, the size and situation of bathrooms, and so on. But they are not used to being told what aesthetic principles to follow, or what the neighborhood requires of materials and architectural details. I suspect that many Americans would regard such stipulations as a radical violation of property rights, and further evidence of the state’s illegitimate expansion.

This American attitude has something healthy about it, but it tends to go with two quite erroneous assumptions about beauty and the aesthetic. The first assumption is that beauty is an entirely subjective matter, about which there can be no reasoned argument and concerning which it is futile to search for a consensus. The second assumption, congenial to those who adopt the first, is that beauty doesn’t matter, that it is a value without economic reality, which cannot be allowed to place any independent constraint on the workings of the market.

The first assumption, that beauty is subjective, owes much of its appeal to the fact that it is functional in a democratic culture. By making this assumption you avoid giving offense to the one whose taste differs from yours. He likes garden gnomes, illuminated Christmas displays, Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” and a thousand other things that send shudders down the educated spine. But that’s his taste, and he is entitled to it. Leave him to enjoy it and he will leave you to get on with listening to Beethoven quartets, collecting antiques, and designing your house in the style of Palladio. But sometimes the assumption becomes dysfunctional. Each year his illuminated Christmas display increases in size, gets more bright and obtrusive, and lasts longer. Eventually his house has an all-year round Christmas tree, with Santa protruding from the chimney and brightly shining reindeer on the lawn. To be honest, the sight is insufferable, and entirely spoils the view from your window. You retaliate by playing Wagner late at night, only to receive blasts of Bing Crosby in the early hours. Here is the democratic culture at work—on its way to mutual destruction.

This kind of thing has been felt strongly in Europe, and it is one of the reasons for the reaction against McDonalds. While everyone has a right to advertise his wares, the advertisement must not spoil the place on which it shines. And American advertisements seem invariably designed to do just that. Maybe they don’t have that effect in America: after all, it is hard to see how the average American main street can be spoiled by an illuminated sign or by anything else. But the main streets of European cities are the result of meticulous aesthetic decisions over centuries. Do we really want the double yellow arches competing with the arches of St. Mark’s?

That question might prompt us to revise the assumption that beauty is subjective. Aesthetic judgements may look subjective when you are wandering in the aesthetic desert of Waco or Las Vegas. In the old cities of Europe, however, you discover what happens when people are guided by a shared tradition which not only makes aesthetic judgement central, but also lays down standards that govern what everybody does. And in Venice or Prague, in Bath, Oxford, or Lisbon, you come to see that there is all the difference in the world between aesthetic judgement treated as an expression of individual taste, and aesthetic judgement treated in the opposite way, as the expression of a community. Maybe we see beauty as subjective only because we have given the wrong place to aesthetic judgement in our lives—seeing it as a way of affirming ourselves, instead of a way of denying ourselves.

There is a parallel here with manners. Even if Americans feel entitled to build as they wish, they don’t feel entitled to behave as they wish towards their neighbors. On the contrary, in America’s culture manners are of supreme importance, and recognized as the ultimate guarantee of peaceful coexistence. Americans greet their neighbors, speak politely, are always smiling. If someone bumps into them in the street they apologize; they cannot take leave of anyone, not even a stranger, without wishing him a wonderful day. And courtesy is the ruling principle of all business dealings. In short, American manners exist so that people will fit in, not stand out. They are ways in which individuality is suppressed, and a lingua franca of conformist gestures adopted in its stead. And this has a function, namely to protect the private from the public, to ensure that each person is secure within his space, and that the public realm is minimally threatening.

When it comes to beauty, our view of its status is radically affected by whether we see it as a form of self-expression, or as a form of self-denial. If we see it in this second way, then the assumption that it is merely subjective begins to fall away. Instead beauty begins to take on another character, as one of the instruments in our consensus-building strategies, one of the values through which we construct and belong to a shared and mutually consoling world. In short, it is part of building a home.

We can see this clearly if we look at the rituals and customs of family life. Consider what happens when you lay the table for a meal. This is not just a utilitarian event. If you treat it as such, the ritual will disintegrate, and the family members will end up grabbing individual portions to eat on their own. The table is laid according to precise rules of symmetry, choosing the right cutlery, the right plates, the right jugs and glasses. Everything is meticulously controlled by aesthetic norms, and those norms convey some of the meaning of family life. The pattern on a willow-pattern plate, for example, has been fixed over centuries, and speaks of tranquillity, of gentleness and of things that remain forever the same. Very many ordinary objects on the table have been, as it were, polished by domestic affection. Their edges have been rubbed off, and they speak in subdued, unpretentious tones of belonging. Serving the food is ritualized too, and you witness in the family meal the continuity of manners and aesthetic values. You witness another continuity too, between aesthetic values and the emotion that the Romans knew as piety—the recognition that the world is in other than human hands. Hence the gods are present at mealtimes, and Christians precede their eating with a grace, inviting God to sit down among them before they sit down themselves.

That example tells us a lot about aesthetic judgement and the pursuit of beauty. In particular, it shows the centrality of beauty to home-building, and therefore to establishing a shared environment. When the motive of sharing arises, we look for norms and conventions that we can all accept. We leave behind our private appetites and subjective preferences, in order to achieve a consensus that will provide a public background to what we are and what we do. In such circumstances aesthetic disagreements are not comfortable disagreements like disagreements over taste in food (which are not so much disagreements as differences). When it comes to the built environment we should not be surprised that aesthetic disagreements are the subjects of fierce litigation and legislative enforcement—even here in America, where each person is sovereign in his land.


I have concentrated on architecture since it provides such a clear illustration of the social, environmental, and economic costs of ignoring beauty. But there is another cost, too, and it is one that we witness in individual lives as well as in the community. This is the aesthetic cost. People need beauty. They need the sense of being at home in their world, and being in communication with other souls. In so many areas of modern life—in pop music, in television and cinema, in language and literature—beauty is being displaced by raucous and attention-grabbing clichés. We are being torn out of ourselves by the loud and insolent gestures of people who want to seize our attention but to give nothing in return for it. Although this is not the place to argue the point it should perhaps be said that this loss of beauty, and contempt for the pursuit of it, is one step on the way to a new form of human life, in which taking replaces giving, and vague lusts replace real loves.

Read the whole article

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Why Art?

Not only is enormous labour spent on (art), but in it, as in war, the very lives of men are sacrificed. Hundreds of thousands of people devote their lives from childhood to learning to twirl their legs rapidly (dancers), or to touch notes and strings very rapidly (musicians), or to sketch with paint and represent what they see (artists), or to turn every phrase inside out and find a rhyme to every word. And these people, often very kind and clever and capable of all sorts of useful labor, grow savage over their specialized and stupefying occupations, and become one-sided and self-complacent specialists, dull to all the serious phenomena of life and skillful only at rapidly twisting their legs, their tongues, or their fingers."

- Leo Tolstoy

Saturday, January 02, 2010

A Plug for Central Market

Couldn't pass this one up, from Rod Dreher's blog:
I want to mention one in particular, my favorite place in Dallas, a place I'm going to miss fiercely: Central Market, the location on Lovers Lane, at Greenville. It is without question the best supermarket I've ever been to. If you are a foodie in Dallas, this is your St. Peter's, your Hagia Sophia, your Mecca. When we left New York in 2003, Julie had come ahead to scout out the area for a house. She knew I was heartbroken over leaving Brooklyn, so she said the only thing she could that would cheer me up: "I've rented us a house close to Central Market." I knew about CM's reputation from having frequented the store in Austin on trips there; what I wasn't prepared for was how much better even the Dallas store is than the Austin one."