Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Plutarch, on Patrons and Clients

By this more imposing title he distinguished the senate from the populace; and in other ways separated the nobles and the commons,--calling them patrons, and these their clients,--by which means he created wonderful love and amity betwixt them, productive of great justice in their dealings. For they were always their clients' counsellors in law cases, their advocates in courts of justice; in fine, their advisers and supporters in all affairs whatever. These again faithfully served their patrons, not only paying them all respect and deference, but also, in case of poverty, helping them to portion their daughters and pay off their debts; and for a patron to witness against his client, or a client against his patron, was what no law nor magistrate could enforce.
Plutarch, "Romulus"

This quote could be very interesting in light of the situation in 1 Corinthians.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Piper on Lewis

"Lewis’s pursuit of Joy by means of rational defenses of objective truth has had liberating effect on me. He freed me from false dichotomies. He demonstrated for me and convinced me that rigorous, precise, penetrating logic is not inimical to deep, soul-stirring feeling and vivid, lively imagination. He was a “romantic rationalist.” He combined what almost everybody today assumes are mutually exclusive: rationalism and poetry, cool logic and warm feeling, disciplined prose and free imagination. In shattering these old stereotypes for me, he freed me to think hard and to write poetry, to argue for the resurrection and compose hymns to Christ, to smash an argument and hug a friend, to demand a definition and use a metaphor. It is a wonderful thing when a great man shows a struggler how to be himself."
- John Piper

Monday, December 12, 2011

Quotable: Oresteia

So against Paris's guilty boast
Zeus, witness between guest and host,
Sends Atreus' sons for stern redress
Of his and Helen's wantonness.
Now Greece and Troy both pay their equal debt
Of aching limbs and wounds and sweat,
While knees sink low in gory dust,
And spears are shivered at first thrust.
Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 60-67

You now speak more in wisdom,
Naming the thrice-gorged Fury
That hates and haunts our race.
Hers is the thirst of slaughter,
Still slaked with feud and vengeance,
Till, with each wrong requited,
A new thirst takes its place.
Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 1475-81

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Little Morning Gloom: Morning at the Window, by T.S. Eliot

Morning at the Window

by T S Eliot 

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens, 
 And along the trampled edges of the street 
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids 
Sprouting despondently at area gates. 
The brown waves of fog toss up to me 
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street, 
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts 
An aimless smile that hovers in the air 
And vanishes along the level of the roofs. 

It's 'depressing' in the sense that it has no explicit positive message to put forth. Yet, the poem, as all laments are, is a cry for something lost. This world--a very modern world--he describes is one where time has become oppressive, dishes are done in stacks. Streets are trampled rather than trodden; they are used not traveled. Life for housemaids is despair and meaninglessness; they sprout despondently. People are noticed rather than known; he is aware of these maids and nameless passer-byers. And cheer, meaning, and prayers, where they exist, never get beyond the level of the roofs; we have shut out God. May God grant us the grace to embody faith, hope, and love in this world.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Generalists and Interdisciplinary Work

The following from Zachary Ernst is highly illuminating in terms of recognizing the assumptions of modern academia:

While I was still an assistant professor, I had published in several different areas – I had papers in ethics, action theory, game theory, logic, and philosophy of science. The chair of my department was unhappy about this, and he told me so. He said, quite explicitly, that it would be very difficult for me to get tenure with such research breadth. This may sound unbelievable to someone outside of academia, but his reasoning was quite sound. Tenure decisions were made largely based on whether the faculty member had developed a reputation in the field. And it is easier to do that if you repeatedly publish in the same narrow subset of the academic literature. Spreading myself around too much, I was told, might result in my having failed to achieve a reputation. At the time I had this conversation, I had two distinct feelings. On the one hand, I felt that this was totally absurd – how can the ability to publish in several distinct areas be considered a liability? But on the other hand, I had to admit that he was right, and that this was good advice.

Notice how the assumption of modern academia is to collect data, not to produce people. A generalist might be the best sort of person for producing people, but certainly wouldn't be the best sort for advancing the mystical progress of the data machine we call the modern project. This tempts me to say, tenure be damned, I want to be a Christian educator.

ht: Discover Magazine Blog; Caleb Gates

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Xerxes and Artabanos on Life and Death

As [Xerxes] looked out over the whole Hellespont, whose water was completely hidden by all his ships, and at all the shores of the plains of Abydos, now so full of people, Xerxes congratulated himself for being so blessed. But then he suddenly burst into tears and wept.

Now his uncle Artabanos . . . noticed that Xerxes was weeping and said to him, "Sire, what a great divergence there is between your behavior now and that of just a moment ago: then you deemed yourself a blessed man, but now you are weeping!"

And Xerxes replied, "That is because I was suddenly overcome by pity as I considered the brevity of human life, since not one of all these people here will be alive one hundred years from now."

Artabanos responded, "But even more pitiable than that are the experiences we suffer as we pass through life. For even in such a short span of life, no human being is born so fortunate--neither these men nor any others--that the wish to be dead rather than alive will not occur to him, and not just once, but often. For the misfortunes that befall us and the illnesses that harass us make even a short life seem long. And so because life is a hardship, death proves to be a human being's most welcome escape, and the god, who gives us merely a taste of sweetness in life, is revealed to be a jealous deity."

Herodotus, 7.46

Monday, November 28, 2011

"The Art of Science"

I love this very Polanyian painting from Cardiff University (click photo for link).

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Quotable: Owen Barfield

Owen Barfield on the "prison cells" in which the humanities and science are trapped, "non-objectifying" subjectivity and subjectless objectivity.
Perhaps each needs the clasp and support of the other in his half--blinded staggering towards the light. Perhaps there is not one prison cell, but two: the ‘non-objectifying’ subjectivity, in which the humanities are immured, and the adjoining cell of subjectless objectivity, where science is locked and bolted; and maybe the first step toward escape for the two prisoners of language is to establish communications with one another.
Owen Barfield, The Rediscovery of Meaning

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Barbarians of the Toe-lee-doe: A Lost Chapter of Herodotus

The Barbarians of the Toe-lee-doe: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus

     During my travels through the northernmost regions of the world, I came to a large coastal city, which in the barbarian language is called Toe-lee-doe. Some of the barbarians claim that the name is after a city across the cosmic ocean in the land of Spane. Others say it was called this because it was easy to pronounce. I disagree with these explanations since it seems to be a compound word meaning something like “a female deer that provides shelter to one’s feet.” I have a theory about what they mean by this but consider it to be irreligious to discuss it further.

     A curious custom these barbarians have is that they do not raise their own children, choosing rather to appoint certain “instructors” in their customs to carry out the task. This is especially strange because from what I could gather the customs that these instructors actually teach their children seem to have nothing to do with the customs of the barbarians outside of the place of instruction (which they refer to as a skule). To give an example, let me first explain the barbarians’ custom of dressing. Unlike the rest of the world, the barbarians wear rather tight fitting and restrictive clothing. Instead of cloaks they wear very short tunics, which only cover a span from the neck to just below the belly button. Yet, their genitals are not uncovered because on the bottom most barbarians will wear long tubes of cloth, which connect seamlessly with a sort of girdle up to their waist. The bottom of the tubes go all the way to the ground, and even in some cases drag on the ground! These tubes can be made of various materials, but are usually held up by some sort of leather strap. Some call these tubes and girdle “pants”—which I take to be some sort of a joke since “to pant” is to breathe heavily (perhaps a statement about how tight they are customarily worn). As far as I can tell the best name for the article is “trowzers”. Now it is customary in public to wear the tunic loosely falling over the trowzers. Yet, in the skule the instructors are extremely insistent that the only proper way of wearing the trowzers is pulled up over the tightly fitting tunic in a ridiculous way. It seems to me that there are only two possible explanations for this practice (the barbarians do not seem to be able to explain it). First, it may be that the instructors actually think it proper to humiliate the children. (Although, this should probably be discarded since the instructors themselves also practice this custom.) Second, it seems more likely that there is a formal religious principle, which necessitates this practice. The barbarians did confirm my suspicions on this point, but I will say no more about this for piety.

     Religiously, it seems that the barbarians honor no gods, save one they refer to as “Jee-zus” (it is unclear what the Hellenes call him). They honor Jee-zus by gathering for singing one time each week. They seem to also contribute small folded paper scraps to his temple, which symbolize their piety. On the whole, however, these practices seem to have been established long ago and have lost their original meaning or fervor. The barbarians say that an epiphany of Jee-zus has not happened for thousands of years, though they expect one soon. But that is all that needs to be said about the barbarians’ religion because it seems to have little to do with their customs and practices. On the other hand, their customs are largely driven by the acquisition of their currency. . .

(the remainder of the text is lost except for one other fragment)
"it is curious that these people seem to love eating what they call 'dogs,' which they claim are ground up beef encased in sheep intestines (though I rather doubt this claim since the meat tasted unlike any meat I've ever eaten.) A man named Tony Paco makes them in exorbitant quantities."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

"This is one of the Hebrew babies"

Dr. John Hartog III has a theory about (perhaps it isn't his own? I don't know) the command to dump the boys into the Nile in Exodus 1 that the command was not to drown them in the Nile, but to expose them. In other words, the children were presented to Hapi in baskets, left exposed to the god to see what he would do with them. He said that the Hebrews willingness to do this perhaps was indicative about the extent to which they were inculcated with the gods and customs of the Egyptians. Thus, when Jochebed placed him in a basket and in some reeds near Pharaoh's daughter's bathing place, this was a very intentional act. In other words, Moses was like all other Hebrew boys placed in a basket and in the Nile (Pharaoh's daughter says, "This is one of the Hebrew babies"), but in this case the basket was placed in just the right spot to make it appear that Hapi himself was delivering this child to Pharaoh's daughter. In light of this, I found this section of Herodotus interesting. It certainly helps to explain the Israelite willingness to go along with this command. Herodotus, II.90
"If anyone, Egyptian or foreigner, is snatched away by a crocodile or has clearly drowned due to the force of the river itself, it is absolutely necessary that the inhabitants of whatever city to which the body floats have it embalmed, laid out, and buried in a sacred tomb in the best manner possible. No one, not even friends or relatives, are permitted to touch the corpse except for the priests of the Nile themselves; their hands alone come in contact with the body during its burial, on the grounds that its status is above and beyond that of a human."
cf. Acts 7:18-21 for support:
Until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph. He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive. At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. Acts 7:18–21 ESV

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Jacobs on "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason"

Alan Jacobs comments (below) on this article from New York Times: The Evangelical Rejection of Reason. First and excerpt from the article:
The rejection of science seems to be part of a politically monolithic red-state fundamentalism, textbook evidence of an unyielding ignorance on the part of the religious. As one fundamentalist slogan puts it, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” But evangelical Christianity need not be defined by the simplistic theology, cultural isolationism and stubborn anti-intellectualism that most of the Republican candidates have embraced. Like other evangelicals, we accept the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ and look to the Bible as our sacred book, though we find it hard to recognize our religious tradition in the mainstream evangelical conversation. Evangelicalism at its best seeks a biblically grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectually engaged, humble and forward-looking. In contrast, fundamentalism is literalistic, overconfident and reactionary.
Jacobs says,
There’s some truth to this, of course, but — forgive the griping — it’s deeply annoying to me. First, it doesn’t say anything that Mark Noll didn’t say in 1994; and second, the only reason it’s in the NYT is that it flatters the prejudices of the readership. A more nuanced view of evangelicals, like the one Alan Wolfe wrote for the Atlantic some years ago, would never run in the NYT.
The problem here actually has little or nothing to do with evangelicalism per se: it’s the long-standing know-nothingism of American populism, which comes in varying religious and not-so-religious flavors, has connived at the evisceration of American public education, and makes millions of Americans unable and unwilling to understand evidential arguments. Blaming the evangelicals is cheap and easy, especially for evangelicals. The real issue is far larger and deeper, and its consequences can be seen even in New York City itself — and there are versions of it overseas as well, though not always populist ones. The very same intellectual flabbiness that makes some people trust Answers in Genesis makes others believe that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
I do recommend reading the Atlantic article.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

In Defense of Criticism

I'm a subscriber to too many email lists and blog updates. For this reason, I often archive emails where the titles do not seem to be interesting. However, one caught my eye today: Finding Calcutta: Find yourself in doing, not criticizing. I really don't mean to criticize this particular article, especially any article that has to do with Mother Teresa. But I must say, there is a defense for criticism. In fact, I think criticism plays a crucial role. Criticism helps us not just to do things, but to do the right things in an effective way and with good motivations. Criticism, rightly applied, maintains humility and promotes reliance on God. Criticism reveals the sorts of blindness the noetic affect of sin causes. Certainly, criticism can be smug and self-satisified; what's more, it can be an idolatrous substitute for obedience. But I wonder if well directed and intended criticism does not sometimes need to be defended.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Lewis, on Bulverism

Concerning Ezekiel Bulver, an imaginary character, Lewis writes, "whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—'Oh you say that because you are a man.' 'At that moment' E. Bulver assures us, 'there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of an argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.'" Cited in Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, 196.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Feeding on Words

I am thoroughly enjoying Alan Jacobs's, The Narnian. I would heartily recommend it to fans of Lewis. An excerpt,

Remembering, later, that moment of revelation, [Orual] also rememers her tutor, that philosophical Greek called the Fox, and that is what leads her to the passage with which I ended the previous chapter:
"Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, "Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that's the whole art and joy of words." A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech, which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all the time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble we think we mean?"

The Fox, who is among the dead who thronged that dark courtroom, does not hear her say this, but having heard her speech, he realizes what he has done, and accuses himself more strongly than she could accuse him: "Send me away, Minos, even to Tartarus, if Tartarus can cure glibness. I made her think that a prattle of maxims could do, all thin and clear as water. For of course water's good; and it didn't cost much, not where I grew up. So I fed her on words."

Anyone who thinks this is merely a critique of Greek philosophy or cheap rationalism has, I believe, misunderstood the passage, for it is equally a critique of Christian apologetics. The emptiness of Fox's words is scarcely greater than the emptiness of the apologist's words. No doubt, what Lewis had written and said as a defender of the Christian faith was truer than what Fox had taught Orual--indeed, far truer--but it had the defect of being in words, and it is easy to forget that even true words bear the limitations of all language: they are, inevitably, "thin and clear as water." The gods demand more than water: indeed they demand blood, for, as the author of the letter to Hebrews writes in a passage at which the priests of Ungit would have nodded sagely, "without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin" (9:22).

Jacobs, The Narnian, 240-41.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Physicalism and Consciousness

Please explain to me how Sam Harris "defeated" Chopra. All he did was admit that consciousness has no access to physicalist explanations (and by implication, physicalist explanations have no access to consciousness).

See Nagel, "What is it Like to be a Bat"

Can he be so blind to his problem?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Till We Have Faces

Concerning Lewis's book, Till We Have Faces

The tendr’st flow’r of joy, alas!
How feebly does it bloom! For I
Have nought of beauty’s fairest dress
That gilded grace that veils belie
One love have I to boast, of her
Who’s blest above the race of men
For her, whom gods will oft’ admire
Tis she, who is the flow’r of mine
Yes, joy exists in her embrace
In nowhere else will it be found
And in the pleasure of her face
And in the rapture of her sound
Yet cruel the gods are to our kind
We faceless, graceless, ugly, blind
They steal and hoard, and ne’er do leave
To us, the ones we ache to cleave
What right have they to break and part
The tendr’st bonds which men may cast
They pierce our hearts with golden dart
Then leave us b’reft alone at last
I cannot love these spiteful brutes!
Their power wielded cold and cruel
To rob us of the joys of youth,
The wretched aim, this, of their rule
Attend! Fair gods, then if you dare!
Your ears I beg for my complaint
To listen, answer, what I charge
I’ll tell it true, and without taint.
Coarse gods rent Psyche from my care
Ruined, savaged without repair.
What pretext can they spin at last
Faced with the stark truth of my case?
My scroll is writ, the die is cast
Will gods be pleas’d to show their face?
Barefaced and bold will I be heard
Unblush’d, to hear what gods may say!
Ne’er suspected without a word
They tore my final veil away.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Another Reason Why I love C.S. Lewis

Perhaps the most frustrating part of reading the copious books on preaching is the author's apparent failure to realize that the largest part about what makes a person interesting is his or her depth of insight, not just whether he or she is a good story teller or uses gestures and vocal inflection with variation. This is a prime example of why I love C.S. Lewis as a writer, depth of insight:

Screwtape: "Why that creative act leaves room for their free will is the problem of problems, the secret behind the Enemy's nonsense about 'Love'. How it does so is no problem at all; for the Enemy does not foresee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it.

It may be replied that some meddlesome human writers, notably Boethius, have let this secret out. But in the intellectual climate which we have at last succeeded in producing throughout Western Europe, you needn't bother about that. Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influence the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer's development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man's own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the 'present state of the question'. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge--to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or or your behaviour--this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded."

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 150-51.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

C.S. Lewis on the Value of Philosophy

In a letter to his father Albert,
"I have come to think that if I had the mind, I have not the brain and nerves for a life of pure philosophy. A continued search among the abstract roots of things, a perpetual questioning of all that plain men take for granted, a chewing the cud for fifty years over inevitable ignorance and a constant frontier watch on the little tidy lighted conventional world of science and daily life--is this the best life for temperaments such as ours? Is it the way of health or even of sanity? There is a certain type of man, bull necked and self satisfied in his 'pot bellied equanimity' who urgently needs that bleak questioning atmosphere. But what is a tonic to the Saxon may be a debauch to us Celts."

Later in the letter,
"If the air on the heights did not suit me, still I have brought back something of value. It will be a comfort to me all my life to know that the scientist and the materialist have not the last word: that Darwin and Spencer undermining ancestral beliefs stand themselves on a foundation of sand; of gigantic assumptions and irreconcilable contradictions an inch below the surface. It leaves the whole thing rich in possibilities: and if it dashes the shall optimisms it does the same for the shallow pessimisms."

From Alan Jacobs, The Narnian, 119-120.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Quotable: Lewis

From Piper, Lessons from an Inconsolable Soul
In reality Tyndale is trying to express an obstinate fact which meets us long before we venture into the realm of theology; the fact that morality or duty (what he calls ‘the Law’) never yet made a man happy in himself or dear to others. It is shocking, but it is undeniable. We do not wish either to be, or to live among, people who are clean or honest or kind as a matter of duty: we want to be, and associate with, people who like being clean and honest and kind. The mere suspicion that what seemed an act of spontaneous friendliness or generosity was really done as a duty subtly poisons it. In philosophical language, the ethical category is self-destructive; morality is healthy only when it is trying to abolish itself. In theological language, no man can be saved by works. The whole purpose of the “Gospel,” for Tyndale, is to deliver us from morality. Thus, paradoxically, the “Puritan” of modern imagination—the cold, gloomy heart, doing as duty what happier and richer souls do without thinking of it—is precisely the enemy which historical Protestantism arose and smote.

C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 187.

Friday, June 10, 2011

RE: This is Your Brain on Marketing

"This idea, simple as it seems, requires us to completely re-imagine our assumptions about memory. It reveals memory as a ceaseless process, not a repository of inert information. The recall is altered in the absence of the original stimulus, becoming less about what we actually remember and more about what we’d like to remember. It’s the difference between a “Save” and the “Save As” function. Our memories are a “Save As”: They are files that get rewritten every time we remember them, which is why the more we remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes. And so that pretty picture of popcorn becomes a taste we definitely remember, and that alluring soda commercial becomes a scene from my own life. We steal our stories from everywhere. Marketers, it turns out, are just really good at giving us stories we want to steal."

David Brooks, The Social Animal, LINK

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Quotable: Hitchens

Since we live in a scientific age, I imagine that stout atheists are driven more than anything by impatience to finish the job. When science is poised to solve every remaining mystery and technology unfolds every new convenience, why should we keep any allegiance to an outworn world view?

- Christopher Hitchens

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2011/05/16/deepak_chopra_atheists_mistake.DTL#ixzz1OqUcNkIi

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Dyrness on Fundamentalism and Modernity

"How can conservative Christians, who entered the century determined to oppose modernism and all it stood for, end up being so influenced by the culture this modernism produced? We have noted that Marsden stressed the anti-modern character of twentieth-century fundamentalism, which led to its consistent opposition and the cultural polemics it engendered. In his history of Wheaton College during this period (1921-65), for example, Michael Hamilton argues that Wheaton demonstrates the ability of fundamentalism, like its evangelical forebears, to adopt modern technology and appropriate (especially) the youth culture in its evangelistic and mission institutions."

What is happening here? How did a movement nourished by the separatism of the holiness movement become so enamored of cultural innovation? The answer, I believe, lies in the inability of conservative Christians to understand the nature of the cultural challenge and their tendency to conceive of its problems in strictly intellectual terms, they did not understand the challenge of social modernism."

William Dyrness, The Earth is God's, New York: Orbis Books, 1997, pg 61.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What History Remembers...

"I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

- Abraham Lincoln

Obviously there are as many quotes which show his hatred for slavery and his belief that all men should have the freedom to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Furthermore, it should be noted that this quote comes from the context of his senatorial debates with Douglas, which he lost in part because of his 'radical' positions on slavery (e.g. the "House Divided" speech). Yet, he was also a member of the Colonization society for much of his political career. This society advocated both the emancipation and the transport of African Americans to a Caribbean island or to Africa. I posted this quote and these comments because I think it's important to remember historical figures as they were, not as we wish they would have been.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Leeds on Finance: Imaginary Trust Funds

For the past two weeks, I had been preparing a bombshell to drop on Jenny. I had spent a lot of time meeting with accountants to put the information together. On Friday, I finally worked up the nerve and I sat her down to break the news. As best as I remember it, I said, “Jenny, I’m not sure how to tell you this, so I’m just going to come out and say it. My imaginary trust fund is going to run out sooner than expected.” Needless to say, she didn’t take it that well.

Jenny wanted an explanation. So, I gave it to her. I told her what happened. For the past 15 years, we’ve been doing a good job of saving for retirement and for our healthcare when we retire. Each year, I had been saving $100K for retirement and healthcare. I had been putting it in my imaginary trust fund.

My imaginary trust fund is an envelope. You would probably imagine that my envelope is pretty big – since it has to hold all this cash. But, it’s not. You see, my envelope doesn’t really hold any cash. What happened was that while I’ve been doing a pretty good job saving for retirement and healthcare, I actually needed to use that money for some other things. I spent some of it on education for my kids. I also spent some of it on an alarm system for my house (I like to think of this as defense spending). I also spent some of it on some pet projects (there was some promising research that promised to allow me to grow my hair back, etc.).

Jenny started to get angry when she heard that I had spent all of this money. She’s not really as financially savvy as I am. As she started to get madder and madder, she looked like she was about to vote me out of the office of “husband.” I knew that I needed to calm her and regain her vote. I said, “Jenny, it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. I don’t have the cash in our trust fund envelope. But look…I wrote myself some IOUs. All of these IOUs are in the envelope.”

Jenny saw the IOUs and started to calm down. Seeing my chance, I told her, “Jenny, it’s even better than you think. We’ve saved $100K for 15 years. You thought that we only had $1.5 million in our imaginary trust fund. But we don’t. We have more. We have $2.5 million. Each year, the IOUs that I put in the envelope paid imaginary interest. So I spent the imaginary interest (on other things) and put more IOUs in the envelope. Now, our envelope has $2.5 million of IOUs that I’ve written. I told her that my biggest regret was that interest rates were so low. If they were higher, I could have written myself some even bigger IOUs. She agreed that this was a shame.

Still financially challenged, Jenny asked a silly question. She said, “aren’t we going to need to start spending some of this $2.5 million soon? You seem to be working less and you’re not getting any younger.” I told her that this was an interesting observation. But, I said, “remember those nice bankers who have loaned us $10 million in the past, when we were spending more than we were earning? While I expect to continue to spend more than we earn, we’ll borrow that money. In addition, I’m also going to need the bankers to replace me as the lender of this $2.5 million. I’m sure they’ll be fine with it.”

Never satisfied, Jenny said, “but if we have been spending our retirement and healthcare money to fund our extravagant living, and now we’re not making enough to save for retirement and healthcare, where are we going to come up with the cash to fund our extravagant lifestyle?” Oh, sweet simple Jenny. “You’re so cute when you don’t understand high finance. Don’t you remember why I talked you into having three kids? They’ll pay for it for us. They’ll just spend less on themselves and send more of their money to us. And, if that doesn’t work, I’ll take it out of their imaginary college fund.”

By the end, Jenny had calmed down. She said, “you’re so smart. You should run this country.”

I’ll be writing two more blogs this week with the Social Security and Medicare numbers and the dismal outlook. But, if you understand today’s entry, you are officially disqualified from running for Congress.

Leeds on Finance

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Subtexts: The Social Network

The Social Network opens with one of the more memorable exchanges of dialogue that I’ve seen. The conversation—where Jesse Eisenberg (who plays Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) obsesses to his girlfriend over his chances of getting into one of the elite final clubs at Harvard, blatantly insulting her in the meantime—sets up a subtext that runs throughout the entire film. Whereas the opening conversation makes the viewer want to cuff Zuckerberg upside the head, by the time we get to the climax of the film you find yourself rooting for him—whom his girlfriend rightfully calls an “asshole”—to beat those nasty, elitist Winklevoss twins.

The key quote in this changing of loyalties comes when Eisenberg responds to his lawyer’s suggestion that he must really hate the pair of establishment types who are suing him for all he’s worth. His response describes in a nutshell the major conflict running throughout the film:
"I don’t hate anybody. The “Winklevii” aren’t suing me for intellectual property theft. They’re suing me because for the first time in their lives, things didn’t go exactly the way they were supposed to for them."

The viewer has moved from a point where Zuckerberg is the “asshole” to a place where she is asked to sympathize with Zuckerberg against the seemingly invincible connections, wealth, success, and arrogance of the Winklevoss twins. Moreover, you’re asked to do so while dealing with the fact that Zuckerberg is still the same guy who acted like a child in the film’s first exchange.

Brian Dijkema at the Cardus Blog

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Lewis on Humility

Thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools...God wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. God wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor's talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long-term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love—a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own.

C. S. Lewis (Screwtape Letters)

Statements of Value and the Arts

Questions such as, “What does this music communicate?” or “Is this picture in any sense immoral?” have been radically avoided. There exists a thought with regard to the arts, that if a question cannot be decided on the basis of scientific means, then it cannot and must not be decided. So strong is the prejudice against the old forms of knowing—where the subject himself was given the responsibility of holding, of deciding—that when an objective position cannot be achieved, then it is better to have no position at all. “Let’s not argue over that, because we bound to disagree” is the our creed. But what if we should argue over it? What if only approximate agreement is our goal? After all, if there is a truth of the matter with regard to these questions (as Christians should agree that there is), should not we strive to come nearer to it?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Art and Nature

“It appears to me that pictures have been over-valued; held up by a blind admiration as ideal things, and almost as standards by which nature is to be judged rather than the reverse; and this false estimate has been sanctioned by the extravagant epithets that have been applied to painters, as ‘the divine,’ ‘the inspired,’ and so forth. Yet in reality, what are the most sublime productions of the pencil but selections of some of the forms of nature, and copies of a few of her evanescent effects; and this is the result, not of inspiration, but of long and patient study, under the direction of much good sense.”
John Constable, Discourses

Monday, May 02, 2011

A Thought Experiment Concerning bin Laden's Death

Imagine your spouse was brutally murdered by a hardened criminal. Imagine the day of his sentencing; he is given the death penalty by lethal injection. Years pass and the day of his death arrives. Given the option, you may even watch the event, perhaps to see justice completed in his cold and stiffening corpse. Would one think you loved your spouse little or much if you left the prison with cheers and celebrations?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Brand and Chaplin on Kitsch

“Milan Kundera memorably describes kitsch as art in which there is an absolute denial of s___.1 Kitsch offers a cosy, comfortable world, a world that is chirpy and cheerful and emotionally cheap. Kitsch trivialises human experience, never enlarges it. It deals in cliché, never new ways of saying something. It is art that is immature, often deliberately babyish. It is high on nostalgia and glitter and low on realism.

“The problem with talking about kitsch is that it risks criticising objects which can mean very much to people. The attachment is often based not on aesthetic qualities of the object but the associations and memories it evokes: a gift from a child, a souvenir of a happy holiday. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. Any dogmatic condemnation of such items is merely snobbery. In any case, today’s kitsch may well be tomorrow’s antiques!

“However, if Christian artists produce art which is shallow, sentimental and low on realism, they not only produce bad art, they also misinterpret the full Christian experience of living in a broken, albeit redeemed, world – an experience which may contain more lows than highs.”

Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin, Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts, 107.

1. Kundera, Milan, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Friday, April 22, 2011

Poems for Friday

"Behold the Man!"

Shall Christ hang on the Cross, and we not look?
Heaven, earth, and hell stood gazing at the first,
While Christ for long-cursed man was counted cursed;
Christ, God and Man, Whom God the Father strook
And shamed and sifted and one while forsook:--
Cry shame upon our bodies we have nursed
In sweets, our souls in pride, our spirits immersed
In wilfulness, our steps run all acrook.
Cry shame upon us! for He bore our shame
In agony, and we look on at ease
With neither hearts on flame nor cheeks on flame:
What hast thou, what have I, to do with peace?
Not to send peace but send a sword He came,
And fire and fasts and tearful night-watches.

The Descent from the Cross

Is this the Face that thrills with awe
Seraphs who veil their face above?
Is this the Face without a flaw,
The Face that is the Face of Love?
Yea, this defaced, a lifeless clod,
Hath all creation's love sufficed,
Hath satisfied the love of God,
This Face the Face of Jesus Christ.

- Christina Rossetti

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Death Certificate

Almost every day I meet men and women well advanced in years who walk to my desk holding the little blue paper. Perhaps it is me, but I seem to see white knuckles, fingers pressing the little blue scrap, not to let it go. That little blue scrap is a metaphor, the only scrap they have left of the one whose name is written on it. In this case it says, Frieda Fern Wooden, maiden name Mabry. Oh, when it was Mabry! How beautiful she was! She would be 77 this August, that is, before box 33 came. Box 33 is heavy with pain. In this case it's "Colon Cancer," for "years." Maybe this is why I see his face is calm, at peace for once. God knows the last four years have been tulmultuous. Surely the skeptics were wrong, death is very painful. The pain of death is in the waiting for it. Grimly the reaper stood immobile, impassive for years, four to be specific. But now all that remains is the soreness from that pain, the jagged reminders of lost joys in the form of tea cups and Christmas ornaments and blue scraps of paper. Perhaps that's why he told me not to bother making a copy?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1665 Kenwood House, Hamptead, London

"As a child I used often to look at Rembrandt's self-portrait in London's Kenwood House, a picture which gave peculiar comfort in the way it seamlessly joins greatness and frailty. It echoes everyone's vocation to glory, with everyone's painful self-knowledge." David Thistlethwaite, The Art of God and the Religions of Art, 7.

Later, "The self-portrait in which you can see yourself - and humanity's condition: greatness almost swallowed up by self-harm; and self-reproach almost yielded to forgiveness." Thistlethwaite, Plate 2

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"Not Many of You Should Presume to Be Bloggers", John Dyer

Can one blog about this article?

At Christianity Today, "Not Many of You Should Presume to Be Bloggers," by John Dyer

Theology Before Facebook, Theology After Facebook
Throughout the history of public theological debate, there was one constant—those debates only took place between a few select people—Moses, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and so on—who gained respect through a lifetime of scholarship.

But the invention of social media, like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, created a radical departure in communication. In pre-2004 Christianity (that is, Christianity before Facebook was invented), only a small group of Christian leaders and teachers had access to the printing press—but today everyone has WordPress. In pre-2004 Christianity it was difficult to become a published author, but today everyone is surrounded by dozens of "Publish" buttons.

Every time we log into Facebook it asks us, "What's on your mind?" Twitter wants to know, "What's happening?" When controversies large and small erupt, there are devices in every direction begging us to not just take a side, but to declare our position on the largest publishing platform ever constructed by humanity.

Not Many of You Should Presume to Be Bloggers
What few of us realize is that when we press those "Publish," "Post," "Comment," and "Send" buttons, we are making the shift away from merely "believing" truth and stepping into the arena of publishing that belief. In doing so we are effectively assuming a position of leadership and teaching that prior to 2004 was not available to us.

James warned us, "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly" (James 3:1, NIV1984). James goes on to graphically portray the incredible power that our tongues have both to praise and to curse especially in the context of teaching. He then says, "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life." (James 3:13). Solomon echoes similar wisdom, "Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent" (Prov. 17:28).

"Evangelicals Divided" by Gerald McDermott

This is a must read from First Things:

In Reformed and Always Reforming: The Post-Conservative Approach to Evangelical Theology, Olson suggests that this brand of evangelical theology is fundamentalist in spirit because it chases heretics out of its “small tent.” He calls his “post-conservative” brand of evangelical theology the “big tent” version.

Olson divides the conservatives—which we would call Traditionists—into two camps, “Biblicists” (a derogatory term suggesting simple-mindedness) and “Paleo-orthodox” (another derogatory term, implying a refusal to face modern realities). The Biblicists, who include Carl Henry, Kenneth Kantzer, J. I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, Norman Geisler, and D. A. Carson, see revelation as primarily propositional and doctrines as facts. But most importantly, Olson claims, they regard doctrine as the “essence” of Christian faith.

The Paleo-orthodox include Baptist D. H. Williams, the Reformed author-pastor John Armstrong, Anglicans such as the late Robert Webber and Christianity Today’s editor David Neff, and the Methodists William Abraham and Thomas Oden. For them, the ancient ecumenical consensus is the governing authority that serves as an interpretive lens through which Christians are to interpret Scripture. The critical and constructive task of theology is conducted in light of what the ecumenical Church has already decided about crucial doctrinal matters.

Olson’s division of conservatives into these two camps is partly right and partly wrong. It is true that when interpreting Scripture some conservatives look to the last few centuries of evangelical reflection for authority, and others look to the Fathers. But the post-conservative suggestion that both the so-called Biblicists and Paleo-orthodox are foundationalist is dubious. Few among the Biblicists just named—and none of the Paleo-orthodox—would affirm the possibility of intellectual certainty based on self-evident truths or sensory experience. Neither group would say doctrine alone is the essence of faith, but all would insist that experience should never be privileged over doctrine.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hebrew Poetry

It's always fun to read Hebrew Poetry because it always contains richness which cannot be captured in English. I love the word plays in this passage. The point is your idols do not speak; they cannot teach you anything, instead they are shaped as demonstrations of a lie. Keep silent (do not speak to your idols) before the God who speaks.

“What profit is a shaped idol when its formulator has shaped it, a metal image, a demonstration (word play teacher) of a lie? For its formulator trusts in his own formation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this demonstrate (teach)? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it. But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”
Habakkuk 2:18–20

Monday, March 14, 2011

Thomas Hardy, “The Darkling Thrush”

Thomas Hardy, “The Darkling Thrush”

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware

Sunday, March 06, 2011

(reblog) Quotable: Bradley Monton

"If science really is permanently committed to methodological naturalism – the philosophical position that restricts all explanations in science to naturalistic explanations - it follows that the aim of science is not generating true theories. Instead, the aim of science would be something like: generating the best theories that can be formulated subject to the restriction that the theories are naturalistic. More and more evidence could come in suggesting that a supernatural being exists, but scientific theories wouldn’t be allowed to acknowledge that possibility."

Bradley Monton, author of Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design

ht: faithinterface

Monday, February 28, 2011

When Dreams Die

When Dreams Die

What is a dream, but a persistent whim?
It's a flight of fancy which flits and whirls
But returns to try to assert its will
A paper tiger, which by sheer resolve
Presses itself against the seat of folly
Who dreams? Who? But the ridiculous fool
An unstable man, always looking for
The riches, fame, or friend he doesn't have
I, for one, will let them die, dreams do die
And above all, I won't be ridiculous.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality. . . . Because wholeness is what man strives for, the power to achieve leisure is one of the fundamental powers of the human soul. . . . In leisure the truly human values are saved and preserved.
- Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture

.The only context within which the enjoyment of human creativity and beauty can flourish is a high view of leisure. If we dignify leisure as it deserves, the place of the arts in human life will be a lot clearer.
- Ryken, The Christian Imagination, 90

Saturday, February 26, 2011


Politics are in some ways irreversibly broken by our educational system. To be in power one must have an incredible breadth of economic, historical, sociological and moral knowledge. True experts in any of these subjects don't get involved because they are specialists who fear overstepping their expertise. The majority of politicians are experts in pragmatism, i.e. lawyers.

Friday, February 11, 2011

An Evening With Lewis and Freud

This sounds very intriguing. I wish I were in New York to see it.
“Freud’s Last Session,” the off-Broadway play by Mark St. Germain, has become something of sleeper hit in recent months, playing to sold-out audiences and twice extending its performance calendar. Several celebrities have been spotted attending the play, including Woody Allen, who reportedly gave the play a standing ovation.

Neither a musical nor a star-studded production, the play’s popularity is unexpected for a drama of ideas so unashamedly philosophical in its tone. Inspired by the book, The Question of God, by Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., “Freud’s Last Session” depicts a conversation between the young C.S. Lewis and an ailing Sigmund Freud. (Freud is known to have met with a young Oxford professor after his immigration to England.) The play’s drama heightens when viewers find that this encounter between minds takes place on September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war against Germany. The characters pause intermittently in the script, tuning into radio broadcasts for updates on Germany’s occupation of Poland, and even don their gas masks after hearing an air raid siren.

Continue reading at First Things

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Art and Theology

For centuries evangelical Christians have steered clear of art, and so lost their critical powers and any real understanding of the arts. It is only in this way that we can explain why Christians took this art to be Christian in spirit and so fit to illustrate our Bibles and teach our children. Christians saw the deficiencies of the liberal reconstructions of the life of Christ of Hall Caine and Renan, but failed to see that the same spirit was at work in these pictures.

Evangelicals have also underestimated the importance of art. They have thought of biblical pictures as being representations of biblical stories. But they did not see that the salt had become tasteless, that there was so much idealization, so much of a sort of pseudo-devotional sentimentality in these pictures that they are very far from the reality the Bible talks about. Could it be that the false ideas many people, non-Christians as well as Christians, have of Chist as a sentimental, rather effeminate man, soft and 'loving', never really of this worId, are the result of the preaching inherent in the pictures given to children or hanging on the wall? Their theology, their message, is not that of the Bible but of nineteenth-century liberalism.

Hans Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of Culture, 46.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

- Robert Frost

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain

I'm thoroughly enjoying reading this autobiography. Here's another example of why:

"At Hyeres I had to wait a couple of days before the money arrived and when it did, the letter that went with it was filled with sharp reproofs. Tom, my guardian, took occasion of my impracticality to call attention to most of my other faults as well, and I was very humiliated. So after a month of my precious liberty, I received my first indication that my desires could never be absolute: they must necessarily be conditioned and modified by contacts and conflicts with the desires an interests of others. This was something that it would take me a long time to find out and indeed in the natural order alone I would never really get to understand it. I believed in the beautiful myth about having a good time so long as it does not hurt anybody else. You cannot live your own pleasure and your own convenience without inevitably hurting and injuring the feelings and the interests of practically everybody you meet."

Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, p. 114

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Quotable: Bonhoeffer

"I discovered later, and I am still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in lifes' duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God. Taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith."

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Letter to Eberhard Bethge

Friday, January 21, 2011

Quotable: Thomas Merton

"When I think now of that part of my childhood, the picture I get of my brother John Paul is this: standing in a field, about a hundred yards away from the clump of sumachs where we have built our hut, is this little perplexed five-year-old kid in short pants and a kind of a leather jacket, standing quite still, with his arms hanging down at his sides, and gazing in our direction, afraid to come any nearer on account of the stones, as insulted as he is saddened, and his eyes full of indignation and sorrow. And yet he does not go away. We shout at him to get out of there, to beat it, and go home, and wing a couple of more rocks in that direction, and he does not go away. We tell him to play in some other place. He does nor move.

"And there he stands, not sobbing, not crying, but angry and unhappy and offended and tremendously sad. And yet he is fascinated by what we are doing, nailing shingles all over our new hut. And his tremendous desire to be with us and to do what we are doing will not permit him to go away. The law written in his nature says that he must be with his elder brother, and do what he is doing: and he cannot understand why this law of love is being so wildly and unjustly violated in his case. Many times it was like that. And in a sense, this terrible situation is the pattern and prototype of all sin: the deliberate and formal will to reject disinterested love for us for the purely arbitrary reason that we simply do not want it. We will to separate ourselves from that love. We reject it entirely and absolutely, and will not acknowledge it, simply because it does not please us to be loved. Perhaps the inner motive is that the fact of being loved disinterestedly reminds us that we all need love from others, and depend upon the charity of others to carry on our own lives. And we refuse love, and reject society, in so far as it seems, in our own perverse imagination, to imply some obscure kind of humiliation."

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 26.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Quotable: Obama

"Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, 'when I looked for light, then came darkness.' Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath."

- Obama


Thursday, January 06, 2011

Quotable: Hans Urs von Balthasar

"Before the dawn of the technical age it was easier to create genuine culture from genuine recollection. Life was more peaceful, man's surrounding expressed eternal values more directly. . . . How immediately can a landscape absent of men unite us to God, for example high mountains, a large forest, or a freely flowing river! . . . In the cities, however, only man's handwriting is everywhere visible. . . . Concrete and glass do not speak of God; they only point to man who is practically glorified in them. The cities do not transcend man; hence they do not guide to transcendence. Quickly and greedily they devour the surrounding countries and turn it into a dirty, defiled forecourt of cities. For some years now the Roman Campagna has ceased to exist, the Swiss landscape likewise. The Rhine has long 'had it.' Overnight, 'nature' will be turned into a reservation, a 'national park' within the civilized world; and besides, in national parks--mostly crowded--it is not very easy to pray either."

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The God Question and Modern Man, trans. Hild Greaf (New York: Seabury Press, 1967), 57.

"Lying," Richard Wilbur

To claim, at a dead party, to have spotted a grackle,
When in fact you haven’t of late, can do no harm.
Your reputation for saying things of interest
Will not be marred, if you hasten to other topics,
Nor will the delicate web of human trust
Be ruptured by that airy fabrication.
Later, however, talking with toxic zest
Of golf, or taxes, or the rest of it
Where the beaked ladle plies the chuckling ice,
You may enjoy a chill of severance, hearing
Above your head the shrug of unreal wings.
Not that the world is tiresome in itself:
We know what boredom is: it is a dull
Impatience or a fierce velleity,
A champing wish, stalled by our lassitude
To make or do. In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light:
Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof,
Then grass and grackles or, at the end of town
In sheen-swept pastureland, the horse’s neck
Clothed with its usual thunder, and the stones
Beginning now to tug their shadows in
And track the air with glitter. All these things
Are there before us; there before we look
Or fail to look; there to be seen or not
By us, as by the bee’s twelve thousand eyes,
According to our means and purposes.
So too with strangeness not to be ignored,
Total eclipse or snow upon the rose,
And so with that more rare conception, nothing.
What is it, after all, but something missed?
It is the water of a dried-up well
Gone to assail the cliffs of Labrador.
There is what galled the arch-negator, sprung
From Hell to probe with intellectual sight
The cells and heavens of a given world
Which he could take but as another prison:
Small wonder that, pretending not to be,
He drifted through the bar-like boles of Eden
In a black mist low creeping, dragging down
And darkening with moody self-absorption
What, when he left it, lifted and, if seen
From the sun’s vantage, seethed with vaulting hues.
Closer to making than the deftest fraud
Is seeing how the catbird’s tail was made
To counterpoise, on the mock-orange spray,
Its light, up-tilted spine; or, lighter still,
How the shucked tunic of an onion, brushed
To one side on a backlit chopping-board
And rocked by trifling currents, prints and prints
Its bright, ribbed shadow like a flapping sail.
Odd that a thing is most itself when likened:
The eye mists over, basil hints of clove,
The river glazes toward the dam and spills
To the drubbed rocks below its crashing cullet,
And in the barnyard near the sawdust-pile
Some great thing is tormented. Either it is
A tarp torn loose and in the groaning wind
Now puffed, now flattened, or a hip-shot beast
Which tries again, and once again, to rise.
What, though for pain there is no other word,
Finds pleasure in the cruellest simile?
It is something in us like the catbird’s song
From neighbor bushes in the grey of morning
That, harsh or sweet, and of its own accord,
Proclaims its many kin. It is a chant
Of the first springs, and it is tributary
To the great lies told with the eyes half-shut
That have the truth in view: the tale of Chiron
Who, with sage head, wild heart, and planted hoof
Instructed brute Achilles in the lyre,
Or of the garden where we first mislaid
Simplicity of wish and will, forgetting
Out of what cognate splendor all things came
To take their scattering names; and nonetheless
That matter of a baggage-train surprised
By a few Gascons in the Pyrenees—
Which having worked three centuries and more
In the dark caves of France, poured out at last
The blood of Roland, who to Charles his king
And to the dove that hatched the dovetailed world
Was faithful unto death, and shamed the Devil.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

"Who am I?" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equally, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!

Monday, January 03, 2011

A.N. Wilson, "Why I Believe Again"

For a few years, I resisted the admission that my atheist-conversion experience had been a bit of middle-aged madness. I do not find it easy to articulate thoughts about religion. I remain the sort of person who turns off Thought for the Day when it comes on the radio. I am shy to admit that I have followed the advice given all those years ago by a wise archbishop to a bewildered young man: that moments of unbelief "don't matter", that if you return to a practice of the faith, faith will return.

When I think about atheist friends, including my father, they seem to me like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love. It is not that (as they believe) they have rumbled the tremendous fraud of religion - prophets do that in every generation. Rather, these unbelievers are simply missing out on something that is not difficult to grasp. Perhaps it is too obvious to understand; obvious, as lovers feel it was obvious that they should have come together, or obvious as the final resolution of a fugue.

I haven't mentioned morality, but one thing that finally put the tin hat on any aspirations to be an unbeliever was writing a book about the Wagner family and Nazi Germany, and realising how utterly incoherent were Hitler's neo-Darwinian ravings, and how potent was the opposition, much of it from Christians; paid for, not with clear intellectual victory, but in blood. Read Pastor Bonhoeffer's book Ethics, and ask yourself what sort of mad world is created by those who think that ethics are a purely human construct. Think of Bonhoeffer's serenity before he was hanged, even though he was in love and had everything to look forward to.

My departure from the Faith was like a conversion on the road to Damascus. My return was slow, hesitant, doubting. So it will always be; but I know I shall never make the same mistake again. Gilbert Ryle, with donnish absurdity, called God "a category mistake". Yet the real category mistake made by atheists is not about God, but about human beings. Turn to the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge - "Read the first chapter of Genesis without prejudice and you will be convinced at once . . . 'The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life'." And then Coleridge adds: "'And man became a living soul.' Materialism will never explain those last words."